Open Educational Resources (OER) and the challenge of choice

Today I read in EdSurge, an educational technology newsletter and site, that “Menlo Park, Calif.-based nonprofit Open Up Resources launched today with $10 million in foundation funding“. The company is riding the Open Educational Resources wave which seems to be particularly high at the moment. Other buzz has included the release of a recent Babson report highlighting that “most higher education faculty are unaware of Open Educational Resources”, the US government’s #GoOpen campaign, Amazon Inspire, and more.

Broadly speaking, Open Educational Resources (usually shortened to OER) are educational materials which are free at the point of use, usually only in digital form. An often-used more restricted definition only includes resources using components (e.g. text, media) which can all be freely remixed and reused by anyone to suit individual learning contexts.

I can’t count the number of times I have sat in conferences or bars or meeting rooms and debated whether or not OER will be (or should be) the death of the publisher. Generally I feel that this is both a dull conversation (publishers can evolve) and missing the more important issues here (see below).

Consciously or unconsciously, OER development is a decision about costs and where they land. There is always a cost in developing educational resources – even a simple worksheet uploaded by a teacher onto a sharing website has a cost in terms of time which could have been deployed in another way (for example on planning a new lesson, or childcare, or going to the pub). Foundations in the USA such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation deploy substantial funding towards the development of both materials and OER organisations. Some of these organisations (e.g. Open Up, from a scan of their website) seek sustainable business models through the sale of add-ons such as teacher training or printed versions.

There used to be a common knee-jerk reaction from publishers that OER could never be of decent quality. Ignoring the evidence of great materials out there, this is a priori not true – OER development is just deploying many of the skills and tools of quality publishing (pedagogy, design, selection, aggregation, proof reading) with another business model. Some will be excellent, some good, some bad.

Sustainability of OER materials is a more serious matter, but equally a red herring. Many will have a very long half-life (given my degree in English Literature, I think about commentaries on Shakespeare from the eighteenth century which are read today. Digitize them, and they don’t need updating). But time-sensitive materials such as those covering US politics, or the state of Britain in Europe (sad face) need almost daily review, and can quickly become irrelevant or positively misleading if left alone. However, there are plenty of ways to ensure that this management takes place.

The real – and complex, no-easy-answers – issue around OER is that of choice and innovation. A market for textbooks served by for-profit publishers and software developers is a government policy decision, not an immutable monolith – and in many countries, such markets don’t exist. Whilst in the UK funding is given to schools to spend on the resources they feel they need for their particular context, in some Indian states (example) one textbook per subject is developed by the government and provided to schools as a fait accompli. Sometimes there is a hybrid model with a restricted list of approved publications, as with the Brazilian government’s PNLD programme or adoption states in the USA.

Governments are making their own judgements here about what’s appropriate. On the one hand, developing a single textbook has the merits of economies of production scale and of control (this last aspect being particularly attractive in authoritarian regimes). On the other, a completely free commercial market with funding devolved to schools means that more money is likely spent on developing materials than the government might have centrally (because some producers will spend on unsuccessful materials and lose money), markets can often foster innovation through competition, and schools have much greater choice. However, funding goes to for-profits, which some find uncomfortable.

OER are equally a double-edged sword. If they are funded by a foundation or uploaded gratis by teachers, that’s effectively new money coming into the system funding fresh, hopefully innovative and likely more flexible materials – at first sight, not much to dislike here. But there is a potentially restrictive effect on choice. For-profit organisations obviously won’t compete with free, and schools will usually choose to redirect restricted budgets away from educational resources if quality gratis alternatives are available. There is an extreme potential resulting scenario in which foundations become the main funders of educational resources used in schools. No educational materials are free of political or moral judgements. So, if this situation looks likely, it will become essential somehow to ensure that there is a really good choice of OER so that diverse viewpoints are available. Any suggestions?

Side note: there’s a point about remixing here which is often missed. It would be quite possible for governments to mandate schools only to buy materials which can be remixed and publishers would have to follow suit. The challenge is that many educational resources are better with copyrighted content which simply can’t be licensed to allow people to re-mix them (for example, clips from Hollywood films, or images of major artworks). 

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