OER, Toothbrushes, and Value

I’ve finally made some time to contribute another installment in my ongoing conversation with Steve Carson about the value of open educational resources.

I think OER are like toothbrushes.

Once upon a time there was a non-profit organization dedicated to oral hygiene. This organization applied for and received a large, multi-year grant to give away toothbrushes. They set up multiple distribution points around the country, and soon 10s of 1000s of people were dropping by to pick up toothbrushes each day.

Now, is the program a success? I suppose it depends on whether “distributing toothbrushes” is seen as an end in itself, or if “distributing toothbrushes” is seen only as a means to the end of improving oral hygiene.

If distribution is the goal, the program is clearly a success.

If improving oral hygiene is the goal, the program faces several challenges:

– A free toothbrush doesn’t teach people how to brush their teeth. Some training is necessary if you’re going to use the toothbrush effectively.
– A free toothbrush doesn’t insure that people will actually engage in the behavior of brushing their teeth.
– A free toothbrush doesn’t guarantee that you will also have access to toothpaste, commonly believed to be necessary for effective toothbrushing.
– Toothbrushing normally takes place in a private space (like a bathroom), so direct observation isn’t practical.
– Because the organization has no idea who picked up the toothbrushes, they can’t reach back out to people later to find out if people’s oral hygiene actually improved or not.
– Even if they could reach out to these people, improvements in oral hygiene are most accurately judged by a professional, but these health care data are legally protected. Self-assessments of oral hygiene are demonstrably unreliable.

If after five years the organization has given away 50 million toothbrushes, but can’t say anything comprehensive about the impact of their program on oral hygiene (besides the odd thank you email received from program beneficiaries and self-report data), what value can we say the program has added to the world?

Is it sufficient to make the claim, “We gave away all these toothbrushes… surely *someone* is brushing their teeth.” Would you want your local legislature to fund a program based on this evidence? If you ran a foundation, would you give money to a program based on this evidence?

I think OER are like toothbrushes.

Once upon a time there was a university. This organization applied for and received a large, multi-year grant to give away OER. They launched the project, and soon 10s of 1000s of people were visiting the website and downloading OER.

Now, is the program a success? I suppose it depends on whether “distributing OER” is seen as an end in itself, or if “distributing OER” is seen only as a means to the end of facilitating learning.

If distribution is the goal, the program is clearly a success.

If facilitating learning is the goal, the program faces several challenges:

– OER don’t teach people how to study. Some support is necessary if you’re going to use the OER effectively.
– OER doesn’t insure that people will actually engage in the behavior of studying.
– OER don’t guarantee that you will also have access to social support, commonly believed to be necessary for effective learning.
– Study normally takes place in a private space (like a classroom, an LMS, or a bedroom), so direct observation isn’t practical.
– Because the organization has no idea who visited the site or downloaded the OER, they can’t reach back out to people later to find out if people learned.
– Even if they could reach out to these people, increases in learning are most accurately judged by a professional, but these educational data are legally protected. Self-assessments of learning are demonstrably unreliable.

If after five years 50 million people have visited the site or downloaded OER, but can’t say anything comprehensive about the impact of their program on learning (besides the odd thank you email received from program beneficiaries and self-report data), what value can we say the program has added to the world?

The same argument could be made for mosquito nets, HIV medication, and a variety of other distribution programs typically funded by charitable foundations. Distribution metrics alone cannot be a sufficient demonstration of value. The real goals are to prevent people from contracting malaria or dying from AIDS. If these end goals aren’t being realized, or if we can’t demonstrate persuasively that they are being realized, then regardless of the extent of distribution can we say these programs are succeeding?

Now, I’m afraid that Steve will think that the university in this story is MIT and the program is MIT OCW. But it’s not. This story (and this entire series of posts questioning the value of OER) isn’t about throwing stones at MIT. The analogy is a commentary on an entire generation of OER projects.

Many of you are thinking at this point, “Well, your problem is you’ve defined OER as a distribution program.” But for many of the first generation OER programs, distribution seems to be the primary goal (as supposed to facilitating learning, decreasing costs, improving retention, etc.). Inasmuch as this is true, I suppose many of these programs are a smashing success by their original standard.

I love the idea of OER as toothbrush because it highlights the fact that OER only increase a person’s *capacity* to learn. The analogy highlights the fact that each individual who encounters OER must still choose to engage in actions made possible by this increased capacity. If they don’t act in these newly possible ways, they have for all intents and purposes not encountered OER. I’m making a claim similar to Twain’s, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” It becomes paramount, therefore, to understand the specific ways in which OER provide individuals with access to previously unavailable capacities. But that is a topic for another post.

For now, let it suffice to say that OER are like a toothbrush. A toothbrush can be super valuable. But very often they’re not.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • What about the indicator toothbrush analogy? How do we know when OER is old and needs to be replaced?

  • The obvious question here would be “how would you design a more effective programme to promote oral hygiene?”

    Mass media marketing? Likely to be less effective than the toothbrushes, which are a cheap and fairly effective form of marketing themselves.

    If OER are for marketing learning (I know I’m uncomfortable with that idea) then they do it at least as well, and most likely better, than any other form of marketing. In fact, ds106 style, I challenge you to create a better way.

  • I tend to consider the use of OER to be user-led, rather than creater-pushed. I suspect publishers, for example, are more interested in unit sales than analysing textbook use. The creation of OERs will, in most cases, be a (very useful) by-product of publicly-funded education provision (though with a wide range of benefits which may make it attractive to others in certain contexts).

    Other than those with a particular interest in seeing reuse of OERs, for many, I’d guess making the toothbrush available will be the important part, and if people want to brush their teeth, that’s great. And if they want to clean their bathroom with it, that’s fine too. Or if they want to strip it of bristles and use it as a stick, great. As long as you’ve allowed reuse and adaptation, of course!

  • Funny analogy.

    I think of schools creating OERs as chefs washing their hands.

    Back in the day, chefs did not wash their hands. That extra step was extra work, above and beyond the status quo of simply preparing food. As the value of hand-washing became apparent, more and more chefs would wash their hands.

    Preparing OERs is extra work, but in the long run, the work put into creating them will be well worth the effort.

  • Tom’s point (about indicators of age) is more on target than he may realize.

    Plenty of things we distribute have indicators in them. Toothbrushes now turn special colors when they are six months old. My car computer has a record of how efficient my internal combustion has been over the last 100 miles. My browser reports back crash data to Google or Firefox.

    This data goes different places for different reasons and maybe some find that creepy. But it’s only creepy if theres a power differential. I think most people would welcome us building in some stuff that can help track where OER goes, what it does, and how successful it is.

    David — you talk about supermarkets and data, which I think is right on. But I think a car diagnostic computer is another example worth thinking about. If we can ship things with (optional) diagnostics in them, getting data on these things is not nearly as burdensome.

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  • brian jansen

    twain also said he didn’t let school get in the way of his education. there are tons of tests being done on schools and their performance and effects, etc., but most of it seems meaningless. i think the ineffectiveness of our current institutions is often overlooked, much like the ineffectiveness of our current publishers. richard baraniuk said that people are asking the wrong question when they ask ‘is oer sustainable’. the real question is ‘is the status quo sustainable’ and i think that’s relevant to the attitude we should try to have when approaching OER effectiveness in general.
    it might not have proven itself yet, but how has our current education system really proved itself when we spend more and get less than probably any other developed country.

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