How to ensure the reliability and inclusiveness of open education?

Last updated 7.3.2024

Research integrity and content reliability in open education

What is research integrity?

According to the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, reliability, honesty, respect and responsibility are the cornerstones of research integrity. Research integrity consists of good research practices which ensure that it is adhered to throughout the entire lifecycle of research. Among others, these practices include the following: 

  • research is planned, carried out and documented carefully in compliance, where possible, with the principles of open science;
  • the openness and further use of material is promoted wherever possible;
  • communication on research is honest and open regardless of the publication format or channel;
  • work carried out by others in the research community is respected, due credit is given to the achievements of others and other people's publications are appropriately referred to.

Research integrity must also be observed not only in research but also when serving as a teacher or an instructor, and in addition to research, it also applies to educational resources.

Learner's perspective

Opening up education, for example with the help of open educational resources, makes information easier to access. Open educational resources and open education modules (e.g. an open online course or face-to-face education open for all) are often planned for the wider audience, which improves the understandability of research-based knowledge. In addition to that, openness allows information to be further developed and modified, thereby making its application easier.

However, learners may struggle to identify when information is reliable, for example in open educational resources. If material is presented in a very concise form, it may not have been possible to include any arguments or other evidence that are an integral part of research. Furthermore, even if material contains arguments or evidence, it may take plenty of existing knowledge to understand them. Additionally, it may be difficult to tell whether material contains outdated information.

The reliability of open educational resources or education modules is easier to assess if the resources or modules list the sources that their content is based on. However, the challenge is that not all sources are openly available yet, which may make it difficult for a learner to view them.

Services such as the Library of Open Educational Resources provide an opportunity to review educational resources. Openly available reviews like this may help with the identification of reliable information. It is worth remembering, however, that reviews may be one-sided or even spreading false information. Therefore, learners should be able to distinguish when a reviewer's views are based on reliable information, that is, when they form a genuine peer review.

In other words, utilising open educational resources and other open education requires that learners have a diverse set of skills to assess the reliability of content. In addition to that, if a learner also wants to use and apply elements such as open educational resources further, they will benefit from knowing that the work of the authors must be respected. For example, it is not responsible behaviour to cherry pick elements from educational resources that solely support a person's own views.

If a learner suspects that open educational resources or education modules associated with a higher education institution or other research organisation violate research integrity, they may submit a written notification to the principal. The notification must specify the type of violation and provide grounds to justify the question and suspicions. Notifications may not be made anonymously.

A learner may also participate in the creation of open educational resources, for example during an education module. In that case, they should study the advice on how to improve the reliability of material, provided from the teacher's perspective. In addition to this, it is advisable for them to familiarise themselves with the recommendation on copyright issues related to open educational resources by Open Science Coordination, which provides guidance on establishing authorship for material, for example.

Teacher's perspective

When promoting open education, it is good to make it as easy as possible to assess the reliability of open educational resources and open education modules. For this reason, open educational resources and education modules must state the original sources and information about their authors. If open original sources exist, they should be highlighted, in particular, so that the user of the material can verify the information, if they so choose. Reliability is also enhanced by providing information on where feedback about the resources or education modules can be submitted.

Since open educational resources, in particular, can spread widely, it is important to indicate when a text was created, especially if it contains new or rapidly changing information. If you know that specific material will no longer be reliable after a certain date, you should also include an estimate of when it may cease to be reliable.

On platforms such as the Library of Open Educational Resources, open educational resources can also be updated. If necessary, this can be done by someone other than the author.

An open educational resource or plan for an open education module should be peer-reviewed by a colleague familiar with the subject matter. The reliability of open educational resources and education modules is also increased if their creation process is opened up, for example by explaining which research-based knowledge or evidence they are based on. Any contradicting views should also be expressed openly.

When providing teaching that is open for all, it should be kept in mind that some of the participants may not necessarily have the same level of scientific literacy as degree students.  In that case, science education should be included in the instruction, if possible. For example, as part of the instruction, the participants can be asked to explain what information is based on more solid arguments and what is still uncertain.

Open educational resources and open education modules are often prepared in cooperation with other teachers or a teacher's own pupils, for example. In that case, the authorship and responsibility for updating the material, among other things, must be discussed when planning the work. When it comes to learners, in particular, a teacher must ensure that they understand the rights and responsibilities associated with the authorship of material and the possible transfer of usage rights. Further guidance on open educational resources created through cooperation, particularly when done with learners, can be found in the recommendation on copyright issues related to open educational resources by Open Science Coordination.

A teacher may be both an organiser of open education modules and an author of open educational resources, as well as a user of such resources, for example. If that is the case, they should assess the reliability of the material they use in the same way as a learner would.

Organisation's perspective

An organisation's reputation is enhanced if open educational resources and education modules created by people affiliated with the organisation are based on reliable, research-based knowledge. Therefore, organisations should establish support processes to increase the reliability of open educational resources and teaching that is open for all. These support processes may include peer reviews of open educational content or regular updating cycles of open educational resources, to name a few. If an organisation holds an employee responsible for the regular updating of the employee's material, the employee must be allowed to use some of their working time for this purpose or be compensated financially. If rights must be transferred to an organisation, for example for updating open educational resources, financial compensation must be ensured, where relevant.

Furthermore, an organisation should provide guidance on the type of metadata that facilitates the assessment of open educational resources' and education modules' reliability. This metadata includes elements such as the necessary information about the author, including the author's ORCID iD, affiliations and other significant commitments, as well as information about when the educational resources will expire. Organisations should provide instructions and model agreements on the authorship of and responsibilities for collaboratively created open educational resources.

An organisation's name creates an image of the reliability of open educational resources and education modules. That is why it should market open educational resources and education modules that have been created by people affiliated with the organisation, and that have been found to be reliable and of high-quality through peer reviews. Moreover, organisations should, in general, enable their teachers to profile themselves as authors of quality open educational resources and providers of quality open education, promoting this through merit building practices.

Moreover, an organisation should have a designated contact person in place for learners to contact if they have any doubts about the reliability of open educational resources or education modules created by people affiliated with the organisation. This may be the same individual who handles alleged violations of research integrity in the organisation. Information on the contact person and how they can be reached should be made openly available. Additionally, organisations should establish a process for investigating suspected violations and responding to suspicions that have proved accurate.

Organisations should offer guidance on finding, utilising and creating reliable open educational resources and education modules (e.g. teaching reference practices). In particular, students should be given advice whenever they want to make their learning output openly available. Furthermore, organisations should have access to open educational resources, open online courses and/or teaching that is open for all on information and science literacy, as well as the assessment of the reliability of information.

Inclusiveness, non-discrimination and equality in open education

What is inclusiveness?

The ethical principles of teachers emphasise, among other things, the importance of respecting the human dignity of learners and promoting gender equality and parity. One important aspect in promoting the equality of learners is to ensure that services are accessible, i.e. that their technical features allow everyone, or as many people as possible, to use the services without the help of others, potentially with aid equipment. Open Science Coordination has published a specific recommendation on the accessibility of open education and, in particular, open educational resources.

Where accessibility describes a kind of minimum level of equality promotion, inclusiveness means a more active transformation of structures that create inequality into ones that support equality and diversity. The concept of inclusion first appeared in UNESCO's 1994 Salamanca Statement, according to which everyone should have the right to attend a regular school, regardless of any support needs. The fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of the United Nations calls for inclusive, equal, high-quality and lifelong learning opportunities for all. The opposite of inclusion is exclusion, which can mean, for example, that a learner is left outside of regular education due to their individual support needs. 

In UNESCO's recommendation on open educational resources, one of the central goals is the inclusive and equal accessibility of high-quality open educational resources. More specifically, the recommendation calls for the development of gender-sensitive open educational resources adapted to local cultures and languages, and for the promotion of gender equality, non-discrimination and inclusiveness of open educational resource policies. In educational resources, inclusiveness can be manifested, for example, as diversity among the people shown in illustrations.

Learner's perspective

Typically, opening up education increases its equality, as openness facilitates learning for more individuals, for example by making learning independent of time and place. Thus, opening up education makes it easier for people to access education, for example if they live in remote areas or have reduced mobility.

Making education openly available also includes the idea of engaging learners in activities such as planning study modules. This will allow modules and educational resources to be tailored to the needs of a specific target group. For example, different language subtitles or sign language interpretation can be added to video-formatted open educational resources as needed without requiring separate permission from the material's creators.

While open education facilitates the adaptation of educational content to the diverse needs of learners, open educational resources alone do not guarantee learning. In fact, some learners may need interactive instruction, in addition to open educational resources.

Furthermore, not all open educational resources and education modules can be made suitable for everyone if they require prior knowledge or skills that not everyone has. Therefore, learners should be informed of the level of prior knowledge and skills required for specific open educational resources and education modules. This way, learners can decide more easily whether the material or module is suitable for them.

One additional aspect of open learning is the use of open learning environments. Among other things, open learning environments enable open discussions between learners on the topics studied. Such open discussions may contribute to a sense of inclusion. However, it should be noted that sensitive topics may require that open discussions be limited to a degree.

Teacher's perspective

The first step in promoting the inclusiveness of open education is for teachers to ensure that the open educational resources that they create or use in their teaching are accessible. Similarly, the accessibility of the open learning environments that are used should be verified. Guidelines for ensuring accessibility can be found in the open education accessibility guide published by Open Science Coordination. 

Teachers should be aware of the meaning of inclusiveness, gender sensitivity, and both gender and sexual diversity. For example, they should avoid using language that promotes otherness, particularly when discussing sensitive topics. In planning open educational resources and open education modules, attention should be paid to inclusiveness, for example when choosing the teaching methods. This requires that, in particular, the target group and level of the subject matter are defined. The target group and level should be included in the metadata of educational resources, so that learners can select the material that suits them.

In promoting inclusiveness, it is beneficial to take advantage of the collaborative nature inherent in open education, in which something like open educational resources are refined to be more inclusive together. In particular, learners should be involved in adapting open educational resources and education modules to the needs of their reference group.

Organisation's perspective

According to the law, organisations have the primary responsibility for the realisation of the equality, non-discrimination and accessibility of open education, as well as for the adequate allocation of resources for these purposes. Mainstreaming inclusiveness and the gender perspective should be evident in the organisation's policies for open education and educational resources. Guidelines for taking accessibility into account can be found in the open education accessibility recommendation published by Open Science Coordination.

It is important for organisations to ensure that their staff members understand the various aspects of inclusiveness. The main tools for this include guidelines, training and merit building. Furthermore, organisations should also support their teachers' own networks, in which expertise in inclusiveness and inclusive open educational resources can be shared. Guidance on compiling metadata that promotes the inclusiveness of open educational resources should also be available.
Just as with reliability, an organisation should have a designated responsible party to contact regarding open educational resources and education modules created by individuals affiliated with the organisation, that may violate equality or inclusiveness objectives. Information on the contact person and how they can be reached should be made openly available. Additionally, organisations should establish a process for investigating suspected violations of equality objectives in open education and responding to suspicions that have proved accurate.

UNESCO's recommendation on open educational resources highlights the need to have these available in multiple languages to promote inclusiveness. Therefore, organisations should contribute to the availability of open educational resources in several languages. At the very least, this means ensuring that the open educational resources affiliated with a specific organisation can be adapted as easily as possible to different languages. It is particularly commendable to make sure, for example through collaboration with other organisations, that open educational resources are available in a diverse range of languages and, in particular, that there is a sufficient supply of open educational resources in minority languages on key topics.