The paradox of re-usability in language materials

The title is adapted from a critique of learning objects (orginally defined as digital resources used to aid learning) in the field of instructional design by David Wiley. What follows is borrowed heavily/paraphrased from his writings.

Author Julie Moore raises intellectual rights and copyright issues with the idea of having editable materials from course books. However there is a deeper paradox in editable or re-usable material.

If we look at a typical unit in a coursebook it may have sections such as language focus and practice, input reading and/or listening and output speaking and/or writing all centered around the unit topic. We could describe this unit has having an internal context, that is the elements which make up the unit – instructions on how to use a language point, practice exercises on this language point, a picture that goes with the reading text, a role play that goes with a speaking activity etc. The more elements that are in the unit the larger the internal context of the unit.

External context would be the other units in the coursebook. A learning object is said to have no external context independent of its instructional use. That is external contexts exists for a learning object only for the purposes of some instructional procedure.

The number of external contexts in which a learning object will instructionally fit varies according to the internal context of the said object. An instructional fit is the effectiveness of the object.

A large object (i.e. one with many elements) has a greater internal context than a small object. Larger objects fit into fewer external contexts than smaller objects.

To restate this the fit of an object with other objects is a function of 1) its internal context and 2) its external context with other objects. The more internal context you have i.e. the more elements, the better will be the (pedagogical) effectiveness of the object. But the internal context is inversely related to the number of other objects in the external context. So the paradox is that the effectiveness of a learning object and its potential for reuse (i.e. to fit in with external context) are contradictory.

So you have a trade-off between effectiveness and re-usability. For editable materials the more you make it re-usable the less effective it will be pedagogically.

Now one could argue that learning objects is concerned with conceptual knowledge (e.g. teaching someone how to develop web pages) whereas language goes beyond the limits of such knowledge. Language avoids the re-usability paradox. It has both a lot of internal context (systems such as phonology, syntax) and a lot of external context (systems such as semantics, pragmatics).

However as the world of language course books currently exists it could be said to follow the path set by other books that deal with conceptual knowledge. If this is the case then the re-usability paradox applies.

Furthermore the paradox is due to the author rights issues covered by Julie Moore. In the copyright context “reuse” means more or less “use as exactly as is”. So is there a way out of the re-usability paradox?

As David Wiley puts it:

The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.

How likely are we to see open content from commercial parties judging by the state of current play in the ELT publishing world? Happily individual teachers and grassroots organizations are already thinking and working on this.

Thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “The paradox of re-usability in language materials

  1. Great post, Mura.

    One thing I think might be an obstacle to Open License for the big publishers: usually they see Open as free, or that only fully open or full walled-in copyright are the only two options. Obviously publishing needs to go the software EULA route to stay anywhere near relevant. My question is, why don’t they? Anyone, Bueller?

  2. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the content industry to promote openness in education. You won’t, however, be hard pressed to find examples of open-washing from the content industry with, for example, ELT big brand publishers now referring to their “free” supplementary resources as being “open”…

    David Wiley has carried out extensive research into the cost-effectiveness of open textbooks measured against those from the big brand commercial publishers. This research has been used to lobby the US government to invest in educators developing open textbooks that can be reused and remixed by the education community for non-commercial purposes. This investment will free up educators to write open textbooks with their peers rather than having to follow the marketing whims and directives of commercial publishers. It will also save students millions in a move to divert their learning content needs away from the content industry (see

    A successful example in language education of going beyond the content industry is – since launching in 2011 they have hosted 6,315,882 users who have reviewed over 11 million pages. FYI, the learning content behind started out as a print-only college writing textbook in 2003 with Pearson, which the publisher failed to promote and was therefore a flop. Pearson returned the copyright to the author, Joe Moxley, and he built his textbook into the online writing commons resource it has become today with the growing collaboration of the greater college writing education community.

    1. hi Alannah
      that’s great news to read about the funding for open college books; and thanks for alerting me to the, a very nice resource.

      which publishers are open-washing?

      1. I would hazard a guess to say that most commercial publishers are open-washing. Have a read of Audrey Watter’s 2014 hackeducation blogpost on the same topic –

        “I can list for you any number of examples of companies and organizations that have attached that word “open” to their products and services: OpenClass, an learning management system built by Pearson, the largest education company in the world and one of the largest publishers of proprietary textbooks. I don’t know what “open” refers to there in OpenClass. The Open Education Alliance — an industry group founded by the online education startup Udacity. I don’t know what “open” refers to there in the Open Education Alliance. The startup Open English, an online English-language learning site and one of the most highly funded startups in the last few years. I don’t know what “open” refers to there in Open English.

        All these append “open” to a name without really even trying to append “openness,” let alone embrace “openness,” to their practices or mission. Whatever “openness” means.”

  3. Just to restate, I don’t see commercial ELT publishers or ELT materials writers progressing the open agenda in education – this is a non-starter discussion unless anyone can show otherwise?

    I do see individual ELT materials writers self-publishing but still at a profit as they still need to make a living…. I do see individual open education advocates, who are in full-time employment as educators, bypassing the content industry as Joe Moxley has done with And, I do see open education groups armed with research like that carried out by Wiley lobying governments to direct investment in much-needed textbook cost-saving measures to make education more accessible while stemming the flow of profits away from the content industry.

    A noteworthy alliance exists, however, between ELT publishers and materials writers and the commercial products that they produce for sale. With groups like Free and Fair ELT, for example, we are seeing the materials writers effectively policing the copyright of their commercial ELT publications with big brand publishers.

    Remix of these commercial ELT publications for distribution (and in many cases for sale) in lesser quality pdf formats is policed by the materials writers as piracy. With no discussion on the growing demand for less glossy and more affordable ELT learning content formats…

    Reuse of free supplementary parts of these same commercial publications without changing their original format is considered not only good classroom teaching practice but morally superior practice. This is a very interesting phenomenon and points to the entrenched culture and business model between ELT materials writers and big brand publishers where free and closed commercial resources are promoted as the best and most innovative way to share best teaching practice while promoting the sale of yet more commercial resources in our field – usually high-end print-based resources. This is what many refer to as a freemium model in business marketing.

    Let’s not forget how many well-recognised teacher training programs are based on adapting commercial ELT content for classroom teaching practice. Our conferences are not only conferences they are also exhibitions of commercial ELT products – see iatefl and tesol conferences, for example. So, once again, our field is fully entrenched in commercial ELT products.

    Many ELT teachers aspire to be ELT materials writers for big brand publishers, and why not? It’s another way to make a living. And, free seems to be good enough for many teachers in our field, many of whom will never share their own ELT teaching resources. However, this phenomenon eclipses and effectively gets around the need for any real discussion on open licensing and the remixing of ELT content by and for educators without having to work for big brand publishers.

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