2017: RIP, OER?

I recently blogged about the Apple announcement and how it amounted to publishers ceding the “traditional” textbook market (whether print or digital) to OER makers. One way to interpret that concession is as a win for open education. And it is a win – temporarily. Another way to interpret the concession by publishers is to see it as electronics companies ending production of VCRs and doubling down on DVD players.

In my previous post I asked, “If video-based, multimedia-rich, interactive textbooks are only worth $14.99 to the big publishers, what are relatively static, text-based books with a few photos worth to them?” Think about that for a minute. Sure, there are “traditional” OER textbooks available for free. But when you could have video, multimedia, simulations, and interactive assessments for $15, why would you take a traditional book (whether print or video) even if it is free?

Secretary Duncan’s Digital Learning Day challenge that the entire US move away from print to digital curriculum by 2017 may or may not be taken up by every K-12 and post secondary school in the country. But it will be taken up by many of them. How will our beloved OER (90% text, 9% still images, 1% video) compete against what the publishers are turning out then, especially if the prices stay in the teens?

It reminds me of the early days of the web. Back in the early 90s, anyone who could figure out the View Source command could make webpages. And we all did. But in the mid/late 90s when somebody figured out how to use Perl to make Apache talk to MYSQL, the web changed forever. Sure, folks were free to keep making the same old dull, non-interactive websites they always had. But no one did. Ask yourself: Of the websites that you use every day, how many of them have a database on the backend? Answer: Every single one, I bet. Overnight the whole web went the way of the programmer, and the expertise required to meaningfully participate (in the sense of Program or Be Programmed) rose dramatically.

The publishers want to make sure the same thing happens to content.

You have to admit that some of the things the publishers are working on are both cooler and better than almost everything that currently exists in the OER space. Can you name a single OER project that does assessment at all (and I don’t mean PDFs of quizzes)? Can you name one that does diagnostic assessment or handles mastery in any meaningful way? We’ve narrowed the entire field of OER down to CMU OLI, Khan Academy, and possibly Thrun’s new stuff. Now, can you think of one of these three that openly licenses their assessments and the engines they run them on? No.

Open education currently has no response to the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers. To the best of my knowledge there is no one really working on next gen OER – OER that are interactive, simulative, really rich with multimedia AND combined with OAR that drive diagnosis, remediation, and adaptation. There’s certainly no one funding next gen OER. And believe me – if it took $100M to get the field to where it currently stands in terms of relatively static openly licensed content, it will take at least that much investment again over the next decade for the field to do something truly next gen.

Because this stuff costs so much to do, if no one steps up to the funding plate the entire field is at serious risk. Much has been written about 2012 being “the year of OER.” Let’s hope it’s not the year OER peaks. We need brains, energy, and funding on the next gen OER/OAR problem NOW.

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  • http://twitter.com/CrudBasher Andrew Barras

    Hi David,
    Well I can understand your pessimism but let me cheer you up. The transition from static web pages to database driven was expensive at first. Now it’s pretty much free. There are website like WordPress that let you put up a database driven site for free. The first iteration of any technology is always custom and expensive. This is true in both hardware and software. However, as the new product matures and evolves, the cost to make it comes down. Yes I agree, the major publishers will lead the way with new adaptive learning software, but they have high fixed costs. That makes them open to disruptive innovations like crowdsourcing. It’s expensive to be a pioneer. It’s much cheaper to right behind them.

    Besides, the big publishers are subservient to the government schools. You know how much of a hash they can make of things. :) Do you really think this project will actually be done on time?

  • Matt Bury

    Hi David, an interesting perspective. While we’re caught up in our heady utopianist ideals of free and open educational resources for all and finally being free from the tyranny of publishers, I think there’s another side to this issue that isn’t getting examined. Apple is also a tyranical corporation. They’re not philanthropists despite what their $600,000,000+ per anum marketing budget tells us. Apple has become a media mogul empire just as restrictive and oppressive as the print publishers; just as secretive, just as deceptive, and just as litigious.

    Their latest debacle with iBooks is just another example: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/bott/closing-thoughts-on-apples-greedy-crazy-evil-ibooks-license/4414

    I want to see OER succeed and be a sustainable model, free from centralised control and accessible to anyone, as authors and/or learners and teachers. We should be supporting the open EPUB format, not Apple’s locked-down, proprietary version of it. Mac users should have OpenBSD installed, not OSX (a locked-down version of OpenBSD), and mobile device users should have open OS’ so that they have ownership of their data and can decide how and where they want to store it, not Apple and Apple’s iCloud.

  • http://twitter.com/drchuck drchuck

    I agree that the OER world is about to fade away if it does not get some badly needed attention.  If the for-profit publication industry can get prices to be close enough to value, OER becomes a brave band of hippies yearning for the 1960′s of OER.  I would go a little further that all the people leading the OER field and getting the funds that were available are partially responsible for this.  They have happily taken the resources they have been given and produced exceedingly dull and virtually useless technical solutions over and over again.   The sense that “all is well” and that “we have our best people on the job often” leads to reduced investment over time as people feel that a problem is well solved.  I ranted about this at great length in my blog several times in the past months.   I am happy to hear you saying the same thing albeit somewhat gentler :)

  • Phil Long

    David – there us hope, though uncertain in its longer term impact,mfrom the emergence of a learning analtyics community that has the drive, breadth, and commitment to learnig that characterised the early OER community. This isn’t to say that the emergence SoLAR with it’s LAK conference sharing comminty is the white horse to save the day. But it offers hope. In one sense I’m less committed to the economic model that produces high quality adaptive response actionable feedback that affords real or near real-time insight into learning the learner can then use. I’m interested that these tools develop.

    On the other hand I think a vibrant open scholarly community has proven vital to research in other domains and I see no credible argument to suggest it isn’t here. It is the synergy of the emerging learning analytics community championed by SoLAR with open educational resources that has the best shot at delivering open adaptive response tools needed.

  • David Lippman

    There are a few OER projects that have open assessment built on open engines.  WebWork and my project, IMathAS / MyOpenMath.com, for example.  But while we have some really cool stuff, there’s only a certain level we can reach with little to no funding.

    Also, with static OER, the development can be funded then the maintenance can, in theory, happen for free through the user community. Interactive OER is different: we need programmers and designers to maintain and improve the product.  We need more advanced web hosting. Not to mention that many faculty won’t consider software products without customer support to help them figure out how to use it, and that costs money.  If we have to charge users, like OLI does, to maintain the open product, then we lose many of the “why open” arguments.

    If you figure out an answer (or a good source of funding) let me know :)

  • Frank Sapp

    Look at http://atavist.net/ – still in beta for public use, but allows the same interactive multimedia experience as iBooks Author. 

  • Glen

    David, great post! You of course remember Nixty. Interactive sequenced lessons, ability to drag and drop learning assets, test/quiz functionality and…a cognitive tutor with hints and scaffolding! We’ve worked with WPI and have the algorithms for the adaptive components – just haven’t had the time to implement yet. There are of course a number of limitations but we are steadily making — iterating towards — progress!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/kurt.squire Kurt Squire

    Great post, David! We’re working on an infrastructure (called AIDA) to do this based on the games coming out of our lab and the social networks that they’re nested within. However, we’ll be nothing more than a little, potentially interesting corner of the web (and very quickly irrelevant) if there’s not a broader constellation of educators & developers who sign on to some sort of set of agreements around sharing data & resources in an open fashion. I think otherwise we’ll be totally gobbled up by the traditional power players.

  • Shannon

    I have brains and energy and this is what I want to work on, but like David Wiley I see several big hurdles:
    1. As mentioned, OER is currently playing catch-up to the big publishers just in terms of complete quality coverage of the static PDF variety, let alone the digital platforms that all the big publishers are sinking lots of time and money into building.
    2. Meanwhile, it remains incredibly difficult to assemble the existing OER into a usable course of even the most unsatisfying sage-on-a-stage variety because it requires navigating a host of different Lego-style repositories, deciphering the licensing terms, and then figuring out how to assemble all the various results, many of which are simply links to web pages, into a coherent whole.
    3. Assuming you get that far, now how do you go about tackling the OAR piece? Say what you will about the myriad flaws of assessment in K-12, at least there is a set of standards to rail–and develop–around. Where are those standards for Higher Ed? The publishers’ platforms tie assessment items to book-specific learning objectives, thus limiting their ability to be reused even within the already restrictive landscape of proprietary content and systems. Course-level outcomes vary from institution to institution, when they exist at all, and often seem too high-level and vague to be used as discrete markers of student progress. Certainly in mathematics and the “hard” sciences there is the notion of a learning path that makes the approach of things like Khan Academy’s assessment piece possible, but what is the analogy in a survey course? It would seem that an open respository of shared, granular learning outcomes would be a precursor to any effective open assessment resource–or am I missing something?