The Remix Hypothesis

For several years my colleagues and I have been conducting and reviewing empirical research on the impact on student outcomes when OER are adopted in place of commercial materials. Suffice it to say the research results are highly variable. Some studies of OER adoption show essentially no change in student outcomes. Many of these studies report small positive and negative changes in outcomes that, aggregated across several courses, fail to achieve statistical significance. Some studies including larger numbers of students find small changes in students outcomes that achieve statistical significance while failing to achieve practical significance. Based on these studies, we can say that sometimes OER save students significant amounts of money while obeying the “do no harm” rule in terms of student outcomes. Achieving the same outcomes for free, or for 95% less than students were previously paying, is a solid “win” for OER.

However, there are other studies of OER adoption that show large positive changes in student outcomes. (For sake of completeness, we are unaware of any studies showing large negative impacts of OER adoption on student outcomes.) Of these studies we can say that OER save students significant amounts of money while actually improving their learning outcomes. Clearly, supporting more learning at lower cost is also a solid “win” for OER.

Seeing two solid wins for OER, and no clear losses, reassures those of us pursuing this line of work that we are on the right track. However, as this irregularity in research results persists – some showing essentially no change in student outcomes while others show large improvements in students outcomes – you have to begin asking yourself, “Self, what is going on here? Why is there such a large difference in the results of many of these studies?” For the past several months I have been pondering this question and speaking to some of the faculty who taught the courses reported in the studies. While I don’t have any research to report on the issue today, I have developed an initial working understanding of the discrepancy. Until I think of something more descriptive I’ll call it “The Remix Hypothesis.”

In it’s simplest form, The Remix Hypothesis states that changes in students outcomes occurring in conjunction with OER adoption correlate positively with faculty remixing activities. Specifically, I hypothesize relationships between (at least) three levels of remix activity by faculty who adopt OER and changes in student outcomes, based on what I’ve seen in the research to date.

Level 0 – Replace
At this level faculty engage in no remixing whatsoever. They simply adopt OER (most often an open textbook) in place of a commercial textbook and preserve other aspects of the course as they taught it previously. I hypothesize no changes in student outcomes when faculty Replace – except possibly in one special case. In the case of students who are particularly financially disadvantaged, where faculty were previously assigning very expensive textbooks, there may be a small positive effect attributable to the increased percentage of students who can access the core instructional materials of the course.

Level 1 – Realign
At this level faculty remix their open course materials. In my work to date, this has most often involved faculty stripping a course’s content down to its bare learning outcomes, and then selecting the OER from multiple sources that they feel will best support student learning of specific course learning outcomes. I hypothesize small to modest positive changes in student outcomes when faculty Realign.

Level 2 – Rethink
At this level faculty remix both course materials and pedagogy. In conjunction with the Realign activities described above, faculty create or select new learning activities and assessments – possibly inviting students to co-create and openly share them – often leveraging the unique pedagogical possibilities provided by the 5R permissions of OER. (This is what I refer to as open pedagogy.) I hypothesize modest to large positive changes in student outcomes when faculty Rethink.

Remixing and revising at the Rethink level will be significantly more effective if faculty make those decisions after gathering, analyzing, and reflecting on empirical data about their courses. Helping them ground these decisions in their own data is extremely important. I’ve personally seen several cases where faculty’s own memories about what is and isn’t working in their own classes are contradicted by data in their own gradebooks. It’s an amazing process to watch faculty struggle to understand the conflict between their intuitions and their data. We need to support faculty in this reflection process every time they teach the course – supporting ongoing, continuous improvement. Rethink is ideally an iterative process by which pedagogy and supporting materials come into increasing harmony, supporting deeper and deeper student learning.

Very roughly, we might say in terms of the 5Rs that at Level 0 faculty take advantage of their permissions to Retain, Reuse, and Redistribute educational materials. At Level 1 they add Remix. At Level 2 they add Revise, and expand from open materials into open pedagogy. Strictly speaking this characterization isn’t completely accurate, but I think it provides a good approximation to get our thinking going.

The three levels build on one another. First, a faculty member decides to Replace her textbook with OER. A logical next step a semester or three later is to Realign, making more sophisticated choices about which specific OER to use to support specific student learning outcomes. Finally, as faculty become more familiar with the benefits the 5Rs provide them as teachers, they may begin to grasp the potential benefits the 5Rs can provide to learners. This will lead them to Rethink their assignments and assessments so that they maximize the learning-related benefits of openness to their students.

As I said above, I don’t have empirical data from a specifically designed study to corroborate The Remix Hypothesis yet, but I hope to either validate or disprove it empirically in the next few years in collaboration with my awesome partners in the Open Education Group.

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