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.