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?

7 thoughts on “An Obstacle to the Ubiquitous Adoption of OER in US Higher Education”

  1. Markets don’t always work well supplying demand (or as economists
    say allocating resources efficiently). For one example, the contrasting argument assumes that people have the spending power to express their preferences.
    How much does demand for housing does a homeless person have? The market answer is often zero, if the homeless can’t afford a place to live. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need (i.e. a demand). Similarly, markets don’t supply the right
    amount of public goods, like OER. Since producers can’t free riders from consuming, they won’t be able to earn enough profit to choose to supply the product. In short, public goods will be undersupplied. This is not liberal thinking; it’s neoclassical microeconomics.

    What you describe as the solution may be on the right track, but raises a number of interesting questions. What is the role of a text in a course? Traditionally, a text is a source of content, but you’re describing something a bit different. Are your renewable assignments a replacement for text or an assessment? What would your students use to acquire the content to answer and edit renewable assignments? Or are these designed primarily as transitional to create a mass of content that instructors will then have to curate to produce texts for their individual courses?

  2. Spot on, David. You asked what you missed. If professors and students are going to make this major shift, we should take the opportunity to go beyond recreating the existing content in the 2000 courses and textbooks.

    Let’s turn learning (and the content needed for learning) into solving global / national / local challenges. Students want to work on complex, authentic problems and have their work be used not just in the classroom, but in the field of study in which they are majoring. Students want their work to make a difference in the world.

    If I am a Chemistry major, I want to figure out how to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. If I am a Civil Engineering major, I want work with my roommate – majoring in Political Science – to create a national public campaign to convince policy makers (and the public) to fund national infrastructure projects.

    Since this work is more meaningful (than disposable assignments) and the stakes are higher (global warming, failing bridges), students work harder, learn more deeply, have an opportunity to contribute to society while they earn their degree, and develop a rich resume and network to help them find a meaningful job where they can continue their good work.

    All of this fits nicely into your framework: all of this content can be licensed CC BY, edited and compiled by professors, and shared with educators around the world for the marginal cost of $0.

    When we build this new framework – let’s also engage multiple sectors of society and ask what the “challenges to be solved” are in each of the 2000 courses. It’ll be much more fun, the power of the education system (and the small % of the 40M hours) can fix a lot of things in the world, and it will redefine “the value of an education” to the individual, to communities, to nations, and the world.

  3. David, I love your thinking here, as usual. I think your idea also illustrates our need for public policies that support creating and improving open digital works. A century ago all we had was bricks and mortar and fortunately, wise public policy makers at that time had no problem with the idea that those resources — what was available at the time — should be used to build physical schools open to all at no charge. Today, we have new digital resources — digital bricks and mortar — but most policy makers have balked at using them in the same way we used bricks and mortar. Instead, public policy has tilted toward the idea that the primary public need vis-a-vis digital tech is to protect the rights of “entrepreneurs” to make money on digital creations — rather than think thru how public agencies can use digital tools and resources to improve the quality and efficiency of the delivery of public services, such as education. So we have a big challenge on the policy level as well — to develop and implement the public policies necessary to direct and support public institutions in the transition to the use and creation and continuous improvement of open, public digital learning resources. Ideas like the one you sketched out above help us build momentum for the smarter, more empowering (and at this point, long overdue) public policies we need. Great ideas, David! Thank you!

  4. I think the biggest hurdles are how to package the work the students do in a useful form and then make it visible to people. I think we need an Inklings or iBooks Author for creating OER books—drag and drop multimedia content, but the end result being a nicely packaged ebook that can be read on tablets and aggregated in marketplaces and not just be a website. Second, we need better OER marketplaces I think for this kind of thing. I created renewable resources (books, webupedias, etc.) with my peers in grad school and now who even knows where they are? They are lost somewhere on the web. And meanwhile as a teacher I can’t find stuff easily that is OER and graduate-level.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is I agree students can do this remarkable work, but we need to make it easier to package and market what they create so it can be found by others.

  5. I have a long list of David Wiley Ideas that are monumental, but the naming of the ‘disposable assignment’ is maybe the most powerful; I bring it up all the time. And every faculty, student I describe it to knows exactly what I am talking about.

    Yet the curious thing is, why does it seem like the list of examples is small? I just co-presented with Brian Lamb where he described the story of Murder, Mayhem, and Madness and my nagging thought was ‘That was 2008- has no one done something like it since?’

    Maybe what Jon did was so outlandish and successful, is it intimidating? Do faculty nod and agree it is amazing and then self talk themselves out of it because its that big?

    In 2012 I spoke to another UBC prof, Tina Loo who recognized the disposal assignments as the pile of essays she graded yearly. She got on board with the Wikimedia Education Program, and had her environmental history students work on artlcles that were lacking coverage. I also got to talk to some of her students as well:

    The thing I find attractive about Wikipedia is that as a platform it is super durable, not subject to intricacies of electronic book publishing.

    There are likely worthwhile projects students could do with organizing, annotating material in the Internet Archive, or things Dan Cohen is doing at dpla –just saw this exhibit created by students

    Maybe its a lack of awareness, or just not a visible path to do these projects. Or maybe people like piles of disposable assignments.

  6. David,

    Since you asked what’s missing, I only have one small anecdote from my bend in the Puget Sound. I would fault administrators who do not adequately fund faculty professional development. I’ve had a committee for two years with a budget of $20k for OER. With that money, I’ve helped bring 18 faculty into OER adoption for their courses and I’ve been careful to call it professional development. I’m trying to make the point that investing in the faculty will yield results for students. This is sort of my strategic plan for a culture that does not understand the value of open scholarship.

    That being said, we have small successes of sharing among whole departments. This is a huge cultural shift for community college faculty and I’m very proud of their work. We have full-time faculty who have applied for sabbaticals and there are departments interested in Lumen Learning’s Candela. It’s amazing! Since our committee has had “success” and it’s popular with students and faculty, upper-administration see it that we have momentum and therefore there is no need to sustain funding. We’re facing huge budget cuts and my funding has been eliminated for my committee and thus, I feel, our entire momentum. When I put a call out in the fall for my third committee, I doubt I will have the same interest from faculty. Maybe. I hope.

    Disposable assignments as a concept is “monumental” as Alan says, and I think they are a second phase of faculty adoption. It’s way too intimidating to consider that when you’re a newbie to OER. The first year is all about learning how to curate and the licensing–all the basics of the 5Rs. Some faculty take to it like a fish to water, while others have a harder time. The second year is when faculty feel more comfortable getting student input and implementing it into their courses. It’s a huge shift to incorporate student feedback for some faculty. They themselves were not taught like this–even as graduate students. The third year could be the disposable assignment phase (thank you for that phrase). Without on-going support and funding, however, faculty are stuck in the first and second phase without any momentum to move forward. The demands on their time are too burdensome. We have systemic support in the WA state CC system, but localized institutional efforts are lacking. I can offer tea and cookies for our meetings and workshops, but I’m just not that great of a baker to attract numbers I’d like to have.

    The funding for professional development, as meager as it was, kept faculty interested and motivated. Until more schools adopt a culture of caring about OER like Tacoma CC or Tidewater, the momentum will continue to stagnate. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. I still hold hope for students to express their dissatisfaction about the cost of textbooks as part of the answer to this problem. When the plea comes from a person like me, it looks like it’s “my pet project” with the open movement. How to mobilize the students to action is still a puzzle I’m trying to figure out. Blog posts like this help. Thank you.

  7. Great post, David. The only thing that I would add would be a reminder to educators about the importance of student choice, which includes not only giving them choice in assignments (which Cable gets at in his comment), but also choice in terms of privacy. It might be implied in what you’re proposing, but I think it needs to be right out in front that educators need to respect a student’s choice to keep their work private whether for feelings of personal safety, future entrepreneurship, or other reasons. Non-disposable assignments can come in the form of ongoing pen-to-paper journal writing to solving bigger problems within the bigger community (again, as Cable said).

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