OER as Voyager, Bezos on Winning, and Lessons for Open Education

Open education has been an odd duck for the past decade. The overwhelming majority of the activity in the space has been in OER. People and institutions have found ways to openly license educational materials, posted these on a website, and hung the “Mission Accomplished” banner on their aircraft carriers. It reminds me of the Voyager Golden Record, content shared by being blasted out into space in the hopes that someone will eventually find and use it. Once we successfully launched, our obligations were met. “Sure hope somebody locates and learns from that. If they do, maybe they’ll send an email to let us know.”

To my mind, this is another example of education failing to cross the theory to practice bridge. We just don’t seem to be willing to adventure outside the ivory tower on the off chance we might have to deal with the difficulties of actually getting something accomplished in the real world. As long as we can setup the servers and upload the content without leaving campus, we’re happy to “share.” But there’s a difference between sharing and only offering to share. When I offer to share my ice cream cone, but nobody bites (as it were), I haven’t actually shared. I’ve only offered to share. Now, there is lots of goodness in people being willing to share. And sometimes just persuading people to be willing feels like a major political step forward. But it’s not time to hang the banner just yet.

In announcing several new tablets yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dropped some wonderful quotes. One was, “Above all else, align with customers. Win when they win. Win only when they win.”

Do OER creators have “customers” (in the broadest sense of the word)? If you believe the answer is no, ponder that for a while. If you believe the answer is yes, then how do OER creators help their customers “win”? If OER providers only felt like they “won” when learners “won,” how would the open education landscape be different?

Back in the day (maybe they still do it; I don’t know) MIT’s AITI and MISTI programs sent students out into the world to help people use and benefit from MIT OCW. As we say in crop irrigation country, they worked to make sure the water got to the end of the row. Or as Bezos would say, they helped their customers win. And according to Bezos, when they did that, MIT OCW won too.

Fast forward ten years, and Saylor has said ‘providing content isn’t enough’ on a whole other scale. Their partnership with Excelsior provides – right now, today – affordable paths to honest-to-goodness college credit for people who learn from OER. OERu is working on the same thing. Saylor’s partnership with Straighterline, and Udacity and edX’s partnerships with Pearson, provide non-credit bearing opportunities for people to demonstrate what they know and can do. These partnerships are arguably less valuable than the Saylor relationship that provides real college credits, but that may or may not continue to be true into the future.

The reason I highlight Saylor, Udacity, and now edX is that they’re moving beyond just “offering to share” and getting the water to the end of the row with secure assessments and credentials. Once Khan, CodeAcademy, and others start following open standards for badges rather than awarding their own proprietary badges, we’ll add them to the list of good actors working to make sure their customers win.

Bezos went on to say, “We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices. If someone buys one of our devices and puts it in a desk drawer and never uses it, we don’t deserve to make any money.”

Amen. I think the lesson is exactly the same for open educational resources. If we’re really trying to help learners “win,” an OER provider hasn’t finished their job when they’ve published content. They’re succeeding when someone benefits from what they’ve done – and only then. We need to think harder about how to make this happen, and how to do it sustainably.

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  • jg114

    Here is one simple suggestion: a restaurant payment model. If a learner can pick whatever learning materials they like from a menu and only pay for the material they consume, then the incentives align: 1) the learner wants to finish to gain nourishment (knowledge and credit), 2) the provider wants to offer a dining experience (content and delivery) that learners will, in fact, finish, enjoy and recommend to friends. When these incentives work, the next day, more people come and consume more. Instagram demonstrates how quickly such an on-line establishment can scale.

    Restaurant model incentives become more interesting when they include an invitation to come into the kitchen to help with the process to cover the costs. If a learner can collaboratively develop, edit or share content (to the “end of the row” — mixing metaphors), they can work off some of their payment obligation. Wikipedia manages this type of reciprocal value creation without requiring that any money change hands (the use, work of maintaining and donations are all voluntary).

    A restaurant model also suggests a reduction in “meal size” might be well received. Instead of a big, periodic tuition bill (cafeteria-style dining), learners could be billed, continually, for what they complete, like the list of food and drinks on a restaurant bill. Since completion of learning experiences has market value, that bill would come due when the learner wants to claim completion, either to get a job or as a prerequisite to other learning. Reviewing that billing statement would give a learner a clear picture of their learning progress and their investment in themselves, while serving as a type of e-portfolio. What firm is closest to delivering on this idea?

    So far, having started in March 2012, the SlideSpeech system supports public, collaborative content creation and sharing with distribution on the web and mobile devices, but — the point is well taken — the project won’t be a success until both “someone benefits” and we can “do it sustainably.”

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