An Obstacle to the Ubiquitous Adoption of OER in US Higher Education

Last week I enjoyed some quiet vacation time – sans wifi – on a lake in rural Tennessee with my family. This break gave me some time to think, worry, and write. I now have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of general education courses and some specific degree programs will transition entirely to OER in US higher ed. That horse is out of the barn. I spent most of my thinking time last week wondering about obstacles in the way of the ubiquitous adoption of OER in US higher education and how we might overcome them. This led me to connect two seemingly unrelated threads.

Observation 1: We Need Dramatically More OER, and Current Approaches Won’t Get Us There

A growing number of individual faculty, as well as groups of faculty comprising entire degree programs, are choosing to abandon increasingly expensive textbooks (e.g., see this article on the $400 textbook) for open educational resources (OER). This strategy is extraordinarily effective at eliminating barriers to access and success for students in many of the highest enrolling courses, like introductory and general education courses, business courses, and mathematics courses.

However, faculty that want to use OER sometimes find that insufficient resources are available for the specific courses they teach. The problem exists for both popular community college degree programs, like criminal justice or nursing, and upper division courses in universities. Given that universities can have over 2000 courses in their catalogs, and there are sufficient OER available for something like 100 courses, there are still around 2000 courses worth of OER that need to be created – and constantly updated – before we can realize the vision of ubiquitous OER adoption across all of higher education (recognizing the narrow but important limits on replaceability I have outlined previously).

Foundations and other institutions funded the initial wave of OER production which, over the past decade or so, has brought the field of open educational resources to where we currently are. While this pattern will likely continue at some level, the funding and production models that successfully kickstarted the OER movement cannot possibly scale to provide an additional 2000 courses worth of material. This inability to provide enough OER to meet faculty and student demand is a critical obstacle to achieving ubiquitous adoption of OER across all of higher education. You can’t adopt what isn’t there.

(You may be tempted to say that the inability of the market to respond to clear signals of demand for OER proves that there is something fundamentally broken with the economics of OER. If OER “worked right,” “the market” would obviously “deploy capital” and solve the “demand problem,” you might think to yourself. If you had a thought like this one, please pause for a few moments and familiarize yourself with the brilliant work of Yochai Benkler before continuing.)

Observation 2: Replacing Disposable Assignments with Renewable Assignments is Awesome

The defining characteristic of a disposable assignment is the tacit understanding that as soon as the faculty member returns the graded assignment to the student, the student will promptly throw it away. Aside from their pedagogical benefit – which faculty are notoriously poor at helping students understand – disposable assignments add no value to the world. Given its immutable destiny for the garbage can, students see little value in investing themselves in these assignments. And faculty dislike grading these assignments almost as much as students dislike doing them, and for the same reasons.

However, assignments don’t have to be a seemingly pointless endeavor that drive both students and faculty to complain on Facebook about completing them and grading them. There are excellent pieces of student homework that have undeniably made the world a better place. Take Murder, Madness and Mayhem, Project Management for Instructional Designers, and Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology as examples. In each of these cases, students created new material or revised existing material, ensuring that the final product was thorough, thoughtful, well documented, and well suited to the needs of students studying specific topics. Three of the articles written for Murder, Madness and Mayhem achieved Featured Article status on Wikipedia and have already been viewed by hundreds of thousands of readers with hundreds of thousands more to come. Project Management for Instructional Designers and Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology have been adopted at several universities.

None of these assignments will ever see the bottom of a garbage can. And the value they add to the world increases exponentially because they are all openly licensed. In addition to being viewed and used by countless people, they will also be extended, revised, and improved by future students and others. As a contrast to “disposable” assignments, it seems appropriate to call these renewable assignments. These renewable assignments result in meaningful, valuable artifacts that enable future meaningful, valuable work. Students tell me that they invest significantly more time and effort in these assignments and enjoy doing them more. And as a faculty member I can definitely say that I find grading these assignments to be much more rewarding.

Of Birds and Stones

There appears to be a fascinating opportunity here to kill multiple birds with a single stone. Could a move to renewable assignments solve the problem with scaling OER production?

First, let’s see what kind of capacity we’d be talking about. How much time are students collectively spending doing disposable assignments?

  • In 2012 there were over 20 million students enrolled in US institutions of higher education. 13M of these were full-time and 7M were part-time.
  • If the full-time students are taking 12 credit hours per semester and the part-time students are taking six, then the average student is taking about 10 credits per term, or 20 credits per year.
  • Students are often told to expect to spend two hours outside of class for every hour they spend in class.
  • Much of the time students spend outside of class is reading for class, studying for tests, etc. Let’s be conservative and estimate that only 5% of their outside of class time is spent doing what we would call disposable assignments.
  • What does that give us? 20M students x 20 credits per year x 2 hours outside of class per credit x 5% of that time spent on disposable assignments = 40 million hours spent by students on disposable assignments. Every year. Year after year.

It’s a bit like Shirky’s notion of cognitive surplus. These are 40 million hours that students are already spending every year producing artifacts specified by faculty. Faculty simply need to tweak the specification to which students are working. And if converting some proportion of those disposable assignments into renewable assignments would provide the benefits I’ve listed above and others I’ve discussed before, it would be worth doing even outside the context of the OER supply problem. Providing a solution to the OER supply problem is a happy secondary benefit that just makes it that much more worth doing. The idea of instructional materials written by students for students is incredibly appealing to me.

Ok, there’s clearly enough student production capacity already in place. What would faculty have to do to make this work?

Faculty will have to be thoughtful about creating and providing a Table of Contents-like framework in which the renewable assignments can be completed and combined into a textbook replacement. Benkler covers this territory in some detail, though there will be important differences when contributors are students as opposed to the traditional volunteer contributors of open source software Wikipedia. In general this should make the task easier instead of harder.

Renewable assignments also imply a shift in faculty thinking from “grading” to “editing.” For each individual assignment, each individual student is creating an artifact that provides a unique, student-centric view of a topic. This artifact will be learned from and then extended and improved upon by future students. Faculty editorial feedback and direction encourages students to make this work as good as it can be – hopefully in many cases good enough to be provided to students in place of a section or chapter of a textbook.

Thinking about the whole collection of assignments, the faculty member is essentially editing a volume of contributed pieces. Some of them might be shorter essays and others might be book chapters. Some might be videos or original songs or printable card games. Faculty will of course need to assign a grade to the artifact at some point, but my experience has been that when students are engaged in this kind of task almost all of the work ends up being A work.

Finally, faculty need some basic level of facility with open licenses and technology to make this work. They will need to be able to explain to students what the Creative Commons Attribution License is, what obligations it places on users, what rights it extends to users, and why students should openly license their work. And they will need to be able to help students who agree to publish their work online under an open license actually do so.

These requirements of framework creation, editing, explaining open licenses, and providing technology support will be beyond many faculty unless they receive some targeted professional development. This means that, while the total amount of time students currently spend on disposable assignments may be around 40 million hours, we can’t actually reclaim all of them. We probably can’t even reclaim most of them. Still, even a tiny percentage of them would yield 500,000 or a million hours year after year focused on producing and improving OER – for students, by students. (The connections to Von Hippel’s work on democratizing innovation have interesting application here as well.)

Next Steps

I need to think about this more, but that’s the point of most of my writing – thinking out loud. The majority of the logistics for making this work are either outlined by Benkler or things we’ve already learned through previous experiments like Project Management for Instructional Designers. There will be messaging and professional development challenges. These will be real challenges but they don’t appear, a priori, to be insurmountable. And we don’t actually need to reach every faculty member initially – we only need to reach a sufficient number. Something like 5 faculty per course (out of all the faculty in the country teaching that course) would likely be enough to create an initial openly licensed textbook replacement in 2 years. Then others could begin adopting and extending that baseline collection. Network effects then ensue.

Thoughts? What am I missing?