OER Beyond Voluntarism

August 28, 2014

The dominion of open educational resources is apparently looming large, if one were to judge by a blog thread touched off with a panel discussion at a recent Knewton event. David Wiley, participating in the panel, made the bold claim that “in the near future, 80 percent of textbooks would be replaced by OER content.” Jose Ferreira responded critically to that view a few days later with a blog post, to which Wiley offered a dissenting reply. Michael Feldstein then weighed in with a dissenting perspective of his own.

It’s a spirited and fruitful discussion; well worth a read. Their comments, though, didn’t tackle what I’ve come to see as the core issue for the OER movement, a foundational assumption that has crimped its progress. The assumption holds that because open-source educational content is like open-source software -- in that it’s free content that you can chop up, remix, and share with anyone -- its application and uses should follow in a similar way.

The short history of the two movements makes clear that this is not the case. As David Wiley points out, the first openly licensed educational materials were published more than 15 years ago, around the time that Linux led the movement of open-source software (OSS) into the mainstream. So why did one open-source movement take off as the other tarried on the margins, championed only by the most stalwart advocates?

While Linux has long been part of standard practice, and our daily computing lives would be unthinkable without open-source software, more than 90 percent of faculty textbook adoptions in the U.S. are still locked-down, expensive commercial materials. Most don’t doubt the unsustainability of the present course (including most publishers), but it’s also plain to see that the OER movement had not yet offered a truly satisfying alternative. The failure of OER to become mainstream at this point is only underscored by the myriad forces working in its favor: economic pressures, greater administrative accountability, government oversight and budget cuts, and a truly broken publisher model.

A clear reason for the different trajectories is the commercial support that OSS has enjoyed, and that OER has not. Contrary to the common view that OSS has advanced largely through loosely organized communities of volunteers, it’s actually often strongly supported through private enterprise. More than 80 percent of the contributions to Linux, for example, come today from companies like Google and Samsung. But the success of OSS isn’t simply through commercial appropriation. Instead, companies were able to support OSS because they were building on an already-present foundation of voluntarism in the hacker community. While a volunteer community of course exists in OER, it does not have the depth and breadth of its OSS counterpart. The voluntarism of the hacker community does not, in other words, map well onto the community of academic instructors.This situation isn’t an accident of history but reflects a fundamental difference in the roles and self-understanding of each group.

With OSS, the hacker is often an end user but more centrally the creator and modifier of code. And to the extent that hackers form a community, it is a community of problem-solvers addressing issues that concern their work directly. In his seminal book on hacker open-source culture, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond suggests that “Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.” Contrast this with the relationship faculty have to the educational content they use: for most, it’s a tool for teaching a class, a means of supporting an activity that is largely extrinsic to the tasks of creating and modifying pedagogical content. Most instructors are not editors, let alone creators of their classroom content; they are simply end users.

If there’s a personal itch to scratch at all, it’s usually in the area of original scholarship and research, not teaching materials (let’s recall that the Internet was born to share research, not lesson plans). For most instructors, the textbook is a convenient package, without which the task of managing a class would be that much more laborious. Commercial publishers have long recognized what the OER movement has not: that often-overworked and underpaid instructors are looking to content and course technology to make their lives easier, not to take on the additional responsibility of managing their own content without financial recognition for that labor. Unlike the open-source hacker, the thrill of belonging to a community of problem-solvers of content simply isn’t their thing. To truncate an otherwise large topic, instructors are not hackers and that changes everything. Or it should have for the OER movement.

The recent gains of, and the growing prospects for, OER are, in fact, a tacit acknowledgement of this difference. No doubt the single biggest success to date for the movement is the OpenStax project, but this success breaks any illusion that the practice of OER is analogous to that of open software. Connexions, the OpenStax predecessor project at Rice, languished for years as an open-source content platform until Rice hired Joel Thierstein as associate provost to turn the project around. What did he do? Thierstein, who previously worked in the private sector developing content for the telecommunications industry, had a simple and very powerful idea: raise grant money to hire the same companies that ghostwrite textbooks for the traditional publishers, and then release the texts into the public domain under the most open license available.

As commercial textbook equivalents, their use required no behavioral changes for faculty. They would not be “learning objects” or fragments that required additional faculty work. Faculty could use them as teaching tools, just as they would conventional content, except, in this case, they’re free. Like the commercial publishers, Thierstein rightly understood that faculty want an easy and straightforward way to adopt high quality and appropriate content. Thierstein’s success enabled Rice to go forward with additional fund-raising and the Connexion’s rebranding as OpenStax. A simple idea has had a significant impact.

And yet for all the success of OpenStax, it’s also clear that a free version of a commercial text will never alone be sufficient for OER to reach the mainstream, nor should it be. Some learning technologies, either already in use or emerging, have the capacity to improve student success significantly. The OER movement’s almost singular focus on cost can obscure the larger objective -- actually getting more students through to graduation while ensuring that they’ve learned (and enjoyed learning) something along the way.

The risk for the OER movement is that it unwittingly reinforces the kind of resource disparities we see everywhere else in our society: a situation in which the well-off enjoy content with the latest technologies and practices, and the not-so-well-off manage without them. To be sure, OpenStax partnerships with third-party technology partners are a recognition of this need, but these relations are still established within the traditional publisher/tech partner binary model, with the difference that the core content is low-cost or free. As important as that project is, it doesn’t yet realize the promise of OER as disaggregated high-quality content created and modified from anywhere.

A better way forward is to compensate the stakeholders -- faculty, copyright holders, and technologists, principally -- for their contributions to the OER ecosystem. This can be done by charging students nominally for the OER courses they take or as a modest institutional materials fee. When there are no longer meaningful costs associated with the underlying content, it becomes possible to compensate faculty for the extra work while radically reducing costs to students. While I launched a new venture to do this, what’s needed are lots of entities -- for-profit and nonprofit -- to experiment with funding models. It’s all achievable and there will likely be no single way to accomplish it.

From this will emerge a new breed of courseware, one that preserves the low cost and flexibility of open content while embracing learning technologies that support faculty and student success. Certainly such a model involves costs, though not so much for the content as for the tools that improve its use and for the people on the ground who are actually doing the work of curating and adapting materials.  Align the incentives in the right way, and this model of for openness can empower faculty members and institutions in unprecedented ways. It will encourage local innovation so that, over time, the courseware, now unlocked and financially supported, becomes an expression of the teaching itself. 

Openness, then, lends itself to a new order of distributed content development that includes outstanding learning technologies; I think all the bloggers mentioned above recognize this. But precisely because instructors are not hackers and belong to an entirely different community of practice, a system for distributed content development also needs to be accompanied by a system of distributed financial incentives. When this all comes together -- and it will -- then courseware will escape commodification and become a creative and low-cost force in education. Only then should we begin to count the percentages.

Bio

Brian Jacobs is founder & CEO of panOpen.com.

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