The Golden Ratio of OER

I appreciate the usefulness of open educational resources in supporting informal learning as much as anyone. I also care very deeply about the adoption and use of open educational resources in formal education settings. The kinds of things I lay awake at night worrying about differ depending on which of the two I’m thinking about when I go to bed.

The more people I talk to, the more convinced I am that OER has failed to establish a digestible value proposition for formal education. For better or worse, many people caught up in the day-to-day vortex of teaching, advising, mentoring, and grading don’t have the spare time to problematize publisher-school power relations, realize the virtue of local control of curriculum materials, or fully appreciate the transformative benefits of transparency.

We need to refine our messaging if we mean to impact formal education – particularly in K-12 where so many curricular decisions are made “above” the individual teacher. Perhaps our messaging can take a cue from the intersection of the current, outcomes-obsessed political climate and the slashing of school budgets in response to global economic realities. Perhaps we should begin discussing a “golden ratio” of open educational resources that compares (1) (differences in outcomes) with (2) (differences in cost) when a OER are used instead of traditional, proprietary educational materials.

(1) I’ve written at some length about why we should anticipate the delta in learning outcomes to be near zero when comparable open educational resources and proprietary educational curriculum are measured against one another. When teachers actively take advantage of the local control provided by OER licensing and engage in substantive adaptation / localization exercises, we can reasonably hypothesize an improvement in student performance. Either way, I believe we can anticipate the “differences in outcome” factor to be zero or positive. The appropriate unit for this factor is probably a standard deviation.

(2) Differences in cost need to be accounted for completely. Time spent reviewing traditional textbooks and other curriculum materials should be compared to time spent finding OER. The costs of purchasing or licensing traditional materials, distributing at beginning of term, collecting at end of term, and storing / managing between terms should be compared to the costs of storing, standards aligning, etc. open educational resources. Costs of keeping OER up-to-date should be compared with textbook replacement costs or annual licensing fees for online curriculum. Et cetera. The appropriate unit for this factor is probably percentage change in the organization’s curriculum spend.

That gives us a golden ratio of OER that looks something like:

change in performance (as standard deviation) : change in money spent on curriculum (as percentage)

Now, it is terribly important to note that a great finding like [+0.2 : -7%] is only applicable to the specific open educational resources studied – THE FINDING DOES NOT EXTEND TO ALL OER. However, if we could demonstrate either (a) stable performance and money saved, or (b) performance gains and money saved, several times across different grade levels and subject matters, then we would have an argument that formal education would have a very difficult time ignoring. If we can’t show one of these two outcomes, we should seriously reconsider our work in the field.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I know of any OCW or OER projects looking seriously at either of these factors (though the recent CMU OLI paper in JIME is obviously headed in the right direction). If you know of any, please drop a comment below.

What do you think? Should OER have to “put up or shut up”? If so, what metrics would you use besides learning gains and cost?