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With all the excitement in the air about big data, analytics, and adaptive instruction, it is easy to imagine a future of complete automation. In this future, algorithms will choose what we will learn next, which specific resources we will interact with in order to learn it, and the order in which we will experience these resources. All the guesswork will be taken out of the process – instruction will be “optimized” for each learner.

There are many reasons to be deeply concerned about this fully automated future. One of the things that concerns me most about this vision of “optimized” instruction is its potential to completely undermine learners’ development of metacognitive skills and deprive them of meaningful opportunities to learn how to learn.

Like every other skill – from playing the piano to factoring polynomials to reasoning about the likely causes of historical events – learning how to learn requires practice. Learners need opportunities to plan out their own learning and select their own study strategies and learning resources. Learners need opportunities to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies and resources they’ve selected in support of their own learning. Learners need to experience – and reflect on – a range of successes and failures in regulating their own learning in order to understand what works for them, and how they should approach the next learning task they encounter in school or life.

Some adaptive systems are designed specifically to take control of these metacognitive processes away from learners. These systems make decisions on behalf of the learner, monitoring what does and doesn’t appear to be working and updating their internal models and strategies. The processes by which these decisions are made are hidden from the learner, and are likely trade secret black boxes into which no reviewer can ever peer. At the end of the current reading, or video, or simulation, the system will present the learner with a “Next” button that hides all the complexity and richness of the underlying decision, and simply presents the “optimal” next learning activity to the learner.

Without meaningful opportunities to develop metacognitive skills, there is no reason to believe that learners will develop these skills. (Have you ever spontaneously developed the ability to speak Korean without practicing it?) A fully adaptive system likely never provides learners with the opportunity to answer questions like “What should I study next?”, “How should I study it?”, “Should I read this or watch that?”, or “Should I do a few more practice exercises?” It goes without saying that the ability to learn quickly and effectively is possibly the single most important skill a person living in the modern world can have. In this context, any potential short-term benefits of adaptive instruction seem like a poor trade.

Instead of designing technologies that make choices for students, we have an important opportunity to design technologies that explicitly support students as they learn to make their own choices effectively. Such technologies must respect learner agency, leaving key choices in their hands – even at the risk of learners making some suboptimal choices. (I should say that fully automated recommendations, like “Consider viewing this supplementary video,” fit within this framework to the degree that they respect learner agency.)

Of utmost importance, these new systems must provide learners with simple ways to reflect on the choices they make about their learning and the results of those choices. I believe that providing this kind of feedback, together with opportunities to reflect on what it means, will be a hallmark of future educational technologies that support radical improvements in learning.


The Object of Study

As we work to move entire degree programs from commercial textbooks to open educational resources, we must answer this critical question – can all commercial materials be replaced with open educational resources? The answer to this question is no, but perhaps not for the reason you suspect.

The primary object of study in a college course is often a model, principle, theory, equation, causal relationship, or other idea. While one particular way of explaining an idea can be copyrighted, an idea itself cannot be copyrighted. This feature of copyright law means that, despite how anyone else chooses to leverage their copyright in an explanation of the second law of thermodynamics or the cause of the Civil War, you and I are forever free to create our own explanation of these and other ideas. When we exercise that right and explain an idea in our own words (and perhaps other media), we then hold the copyright to our explanations of those ideas. And as the copyright holders we are free to openly license our explanations, thereby creating OER alternatives to the All Rights Reserved explanations published and controlled by commercial publishers.

Sometimes, however, the object of study is not an idea, but is a specific creative work like a painting by Pollock or a score by Shostakovich. Unlike ideas, creative works are copyrightable. And no matter how much we want to save students money and increase pedagogical flexibility by using OER, it simply isn’t possible for you or I to create an openly licensed equivalent of Catcher in the Rye. This impossibility can also arise when we want students to read a seminal research article rather than someone else’s summary of its key ideas and findings.

In summary, in circumstances where (1) the primary object of study is not an idea, but is a specific creative work which is still under copyright and (2) the copyright holder has chosen not to publish the work under an open license, it is literally impossible to replace all the commercial content in that course with OER.

Whenever it is impossible to replace commercial materials with OER for these reasons, we find ourselves in a situation where commercial materials must be used in the course. If openly licensed materials cannot be used, is there perhaps a way to have students use commercial materials for free (legally, of course)? Asking this question can lead directly to a fruitful collaboration with your campus library. The library may be able to purchase or license copies of these commercial materials and make them available to students for free. In fact, they may have already purchased or licensed copies which are just waiting to be used. The library is a trusted, capable, and unfortunately often overlooked potential partner for closing the access gap to commercial materials. (Your library may also be curating OER you don’t know about – libraries are actually leading the charge toward OER on some campuses.)

Why Use OER at All – Why Not Just Use Library Resources?

Recognizing that the library may already have purchased or licensed copies of materials that could be provided to students for free raises the question: why not just use library resources instead of making the move to OER? The answer to this question combines thinking about cost and permissions.

  1. Commercial textbooks are (a) extremely expensive and (b) are published under an All Rights Reserved model that restricts what faculty and students can do with them.
  2. Library resources are (a) available to students for free (though they likely pay a fee which supports the library’s acquisitions budget), but (b) are also published under an All Rights Reserved model that restricts what faculty and students can do with them.
  3. Open educational resources are (a) available to students for free (though they may pay a technology support fee), and (b) are available to students and faculty under open licenses which provide them perpetual, irrevocable permissions to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute them.

In tabular form:

Comparing commercial textbooks, library resources, and OER

From the perspectives of affordability and pedagogical flexibility, when faculty make course materials adoption decisions they should chose OER first, all other things being equal. When it is impossible to choose OER, faculty should choose library resources. Students should be required to individually purchase commercial materials only when OER and library resources are impossible to use.

The Danger Zone: A Third Category Replaceability

Finally, it is important to recognize a middle category between situations where faculty can adopt OER and situations where it is impossible to replace the object of study with an openly licensed equivalent. The three categories of replaceability are:

  1. An open replacement exists: OER already exist that can be adopted in place of commercial materials.
  2. An open replacement could exist, but doesn’t yet. No adoptable OER exist, but this problem could be solved through the appropriate investment of time and resources.
  3. An open replacement is impossible. No OER exist because it is impossible to create an openly licensed replacement of the principal object of study.

While it is critically important for us to recognize that a range of circumstances exist in which an open replacement is impossible, it is equally important that we recognize that “impossible” is not the same as “really hard” or “really expensive.” Situations in which it would be really hard or really expensive to create an OER replacement belong in the “could exist, but doesn’t yet” category. As a community, we can and should be working systematically toward moving items from the “doesn’t exist yet” category into the “an open replacement exists” category. This process begins by making a special effort to resist the temptation to throw our hands up and retreat back to commercial materials when we realize one of our learning outcomes is in the “not yet” zone.