Reflections on Open Education and the Path Forward

There’s been a lot of discussion about open textbooks, efficacy research, and student cost savings in the wake of this year’s #OpenEd15. The general theme of the conversation has been a concern that a focus on open textbooks confuses the means of open education with the end of open education. I’m compiling a Storify of examples of this really engaging writing – you should definitely take the time to read through it. I’m not responding directly to many of the points made in those posts here, but will in later follow-up posts.

The overall criticism about ends / means confusion may or may not be true – it depends entirely on what you think the end or goal of open education should be. This is a conversation we almost never have in the field of open education. What is our long-term goal? What are we actually trying to accomplish? What kind of change are we trying to create in the world? The recently published OER strategy document, as informative as it is, reads more like a list of issues and opportunities than what Michael Feldstein describes as “rungs on a ladder of ambition.” Answering these questions leads to additional, more proximate concerns, like what specific steps do we need to take to get from here to there? In his #OpenEd15 keynote, Michael pushed our thinking with some additional questions, like “Who are we willing to let win?”

As I have reflected on the post-conference conversation, and these larger questions about goals and purpose, I’ve decided to share some of my current best answers to these questions. (Disclaimer: my answers are guaranteed to evolve over time.) Your answers will almost certainly be different than mine – and that’s a good thing. I’m not sharing my answers as a way of claiming that they reflect the One True Answer. I’m sharing them in the hope that they will prompt you to think more deeply about your own answers. I find that nothing helps me clarify my thinking quite like reading others’ thinking I disagree with. As we all take the opportunity to ask and answer these important questions for ourselves, and to do that thinking publicly, out loud, who knows what might happen?

My ultimate goal is this:

I want to (1) radically improve the quality of education as judged by learners, and (2) radically improve access to education. And I want to do it worldwide.

At first blush this may seem like a “boil the ocean” problem, both completely intractable and not particularly related to open education. I want to persuade you otherwise.

Overall Approach

I find the internet to be a powerful metaphor when thinking about the future of education. The internet’s early designers were not trying to facilitate the creation of a Google, Facebook, Amazon, WordPress, Wikipedia, or OpenCourseWare. Rather than attempting to optimize the network for obvious early use cases, they instead worked mindfully to create an open, neutral infrastructure where anyone could create and offer any service they could imagine, as long as they followed basic protocols. As described by Saltzer, Reed, and Clark (1984), the “end-to-end” design principle embodied in the internet argues for keeping core infrastructure neutral and open:

End-to-end arguments are a kind of “Occam’s razor” when it comes to choosing the functions to be provided in a communication subsystem. Because the communication subsystem is frequently specified before applications that use the subsystem are known, the designer may be tempted to “help” the users by taking on more function than necessary. Awareness of end-to-end arguments can help to reduce such temptations.

(If you haven’t read Zittrain’s Future of the Internet, I highly recommend it – particularly his description of how the principle of ‘rough consensus’ and the ‘procrastination principle’ are exemplified in the internet’s evolving design. These are powerful and extremely important ideas.)

I take a similar approach in my thinking about the future of education. By analogy to the Saltzer, Reed, and Clark quote, content is like the communication subsystem and pedagogy is like the application. Rather than optimizing for a single educational model or family of models, I want to build and deploy an open, neutral content infrastructure that will enable everyone to create and employ an infinite variety of models. In other words, my intermediate goal is that I want to do for education what the internet did for communication and commerce. I believe that is our best chance for enabling the true breakthroughs in pedagogy and access that are my end goal.

You have often heard me say “content is infrastructure.” Today’s content infrastructure for higher education is extremely expensive and provides no real opportunity for experimentation. Both of these characteristics contribute to the problems of access and quality I would like to help solve. When I say “today’s content infrastructure,” I’m speaking of course about the traditional textbooks, online homework systems, and other educational offerings from commercial publishers. As academics increasingly extol the virtues of democratizing innovation and permissionless innovation, the educational content offered by publishers is increasingly burdened with draconian DRM and terms of use that prohibit unintended (read: innovative) uses. And did I mention it’s incredibly expensive? (There is a parallel argument here in open science and open access to research, but that’s not the argument I’m building here.)

Once I came to believe that textbooks and other educational content are core intellectual infrastructure supporting teaching and learning, I began to see the scale of the transformation that was necessary. We can’t possibly make the kind of forward progress in education that other fields have experienced until we have deployed our own open, neutral content infrastructure for everyone to experiment and innovate on. As I’ve pondered this, it’s become clear that replacing commercial educational materials with open educational resources is an infrastructure upgrade similar in impact to installing ubiquitous wifi across campus. You don’t even have to rip out all the old ethernet jacks in the wall, you just make them completely irrelevant with an alternative that is orders of magnitude more useful.

When deployment of the open content infrastructure is complete, each and every faculty member will be in a position to engage in open pedagogy, open educational practices, and a currently inconceivable range of other innovative / radical / critical approaches to their teaching. (Creating negative liberty with regard to our pedagogies allows us to meaningfully pursue positive liberty with regard to our pedagogies.) Importantly, students and other informal learners will have an equal number of new opportunities with regard to their learning.

Many of these pedagogical and other experiments will be complete failures. Some will be revolutionary successes.

“David,” you might ask, “you’re a smart enough fellow who has spent some time studying instructional design and learning science. Why not just go implement the specific models that you think will work best in order to improve quality and access of education worldwide?” It’s very kind of you to ask. And I am engaging in my own experiments. But I’m also sufficiently humble to realize that what I lovingly refer to as “Linus’ Warning” applies here:

And don’t EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. That’s giving your intelligence _much_ too much credit.

The whole email is really worth reading.

It’s not just about me trying to do the smartest work I know how to do – it’s about creating an open, neutral content infrastructure that will enable millions of innovative experiments that today would be too difficult and too expensive to even think about conducting.

By this point you’ll have no doubt said to yourself, “self, he’s missing a critically important point. You don’t simply ‘deploy the open content infrastructure’ in a command and control manner similar to the way you deploy wifi across campus.” And you’re exactly right. Each individual faculty member has to make their own choice to adopt open educational resources instead of commercial materials. So how on earth do we help that happen?

Specific Approach Up Until Now

I’ll begin by pointing out that we are significantly down the path on this work. Hundreds of people have made major contributions to the work. If you’ll allow me to provide a little personal color and some history, I’ll relate my own contributions here simply to establish the trajectory of my efforts toward my intermediate goal.

When I first began my efforts on open content in 1998, there were three main tasks ahead that needed to be accomplished. We needed to:

  • Make it easy for people to legally share educational resources
  • Persuade people to actually share their own content
  • Persuade people to actually use someone else’s open content

There’s a logical progression here. As a backwards chain: before faculty can choose to replace the commercial resources in their courses with open educational resources, there must first be open educational resources. Before there can be open educational resources, we must persuade creators to openly license their work. Before we can convince authors to openly license their work, their must be open licenses.

Consequently, from 1998 – 2003 I focused on the open licensing problem, creating the Open Content License in 1998 (which got very little use) and then working with Eric Raymond and others on the Open Publication License in 1999 (which did quite well). A few years later, Creative Commons entered the scene and on June 30, 2003 I officially shutdown the open licensing work I was doing. The CC snowball is still picking up speed, size, and momentum as it rolls downhill.

From 2003 – 2008 I focused on the evangelism problem. How do we persuade faculty to start sharing their work under open licenses? During this period I launched the Open Education Conference, partly as a vehicle for this evangelism work. I also founded the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning at USU in order to build a team of people to help the evangelism succeed. (One example of the work we did there was creating the Educommons platform – software that made it easier for universities to run opencourseware projects. By the end of this period 1/3 of all OCWs globally were running on Educommons.) By 2008 Creative Commons, the OCW Consortium, and a myriad of other individuals and organizations were actively evangelizing for open sharing, and the evangelism continues today and is quite successful.

From 2008 – 2012 I focused primarily on the FUD problem slowing down faculty adoption of open content. Many faculty were hesitant to adopt OER because they didn’t believe “free stuff on the internet” could support learning as effectively as commercial materials. I formed the Open Education Group specifically for the purpose of doing good quality empirical work that would eliminate these concerns. This work is still alive and well, as we showed in presentations at OpenEd15.

At the end of 2012 Kim Thanos and I launched Lumen to build a team around the down-in-the-trenches work required to help faculty adopt OER in effective ways. We quickly moved our focus from encouraging random, individual faculty scattered here and there to supporting groups of faculty in moving entire degree programs from commercial resources to OER (like Tidewater’s Z Degree). This was somewhat akin to deploying wifi within a single building on campus – with a group of enthusiastic early adopters like the group at Tidewater you can really start to feel the power of what is possible.

I have to express my gratitude here and say that none of the work I’ve contributed to the problem to date would have been possible without the incredible support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, as well as generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Shuttleworth Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and other funders. I’ve also been blessed to collaborate with a wide range of passionate, talented, and joyful faculty, student, and other colleagues.

A Draft Specific Approach Going Forward

I continue to work with Creative Commons, to advocate for open sharing, to conduct research on the efficacy of OER, and to encourage faculty to adopt OER created by others. But where specifically do we go from here? How do we get from here to the intermediate goal of a ubiquitous open content infrastructure in higher education, which enables the longer term goal of improved quality and access? Here are some drafty thoughts based on my current best thinking.

Again, backward chaining: Before faculty can choose OER in place of commercial materials for all their courses, there must be OER available for every course. Before there can be OER for every course, there must be incentives supporting the creation and sharing of “long-tail OER” that do not exist today. Before there can be incentives supporting OER creation and sharing, there must be recognition of the value of OER among those who control the incentive architectures. Before those who control the incentive architectures will recognize the value of OER, there must be a substantial track record of successful OER adoption.

How do we create a substantial record of successful OER adoption?

Satish Krishnamurthy

To date, OER adopters have been people (and institutions) we might characterize as innovators and early adopters. That is to be expected. However, we can’t create a sufficiently substantive record of successes associated with OER adoption in collaboration with innovators and early adopters alone. This means we need a reasonable strategy for successfully engaging early majority and late majority faculty (to use Rogers’ terms).

I have a hunch – someone has probably written about this in a more cogent manner elsewhere – that the further to the right someone is in the distribution of people in Rogers’ diffusion of innovations curve, the smaller the steps they need to take as they move toward the left. (Yes, this eventually results in something like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, and for Laggards at the very far right of the curve “progress occurs one retirement at a time,” as they say.)

This means that we need to thoughtfully chart a path of small, accessible steps forward for these early and late majority faculty. I believe “open textbooks” can be an effective strategy for first conversations with early majority and late majority faculty. (If you haven’t read the Hewlett Foundation’s Why We Fund Open Textbooks (and Plan to Do More, you should.)  However, we cannot let open textbooks be our last conversation with faculty – even in that very first conversation we must be attentive to the entire set of small steps we want to eventually enable them to take. At a minimum those steps should include:

Small Step 0. Moving from commercial textbooks to open textbooks
Small Step 1. Moving from open textbooks to open educational resources
Small Step 2. Moving from open educational resources to open pedagogy

As we saw in some of the tweets and post-#OpenEd15 blogging this year, efforts to help early majority faculty take Small Step 0 can be completely uninteresting to innovators and early adopters who are engaged in pushing the boundaries of open pedagogy. I think it will be absolutely key to hold the Open Education Conference community together for some time to come, so that people at Small Step 0 can see the work being done by people at Small Steps 1 and 2 and beyond. This will allow early and late majority faculty to be inspired by the exciting examples of their innovator and early adopter peers. Creating the right mix of people and presentations at OpenEd will be critically important for supporting this cross-pollination going forward.

Once early and late majority faculty choose to switch to open, we absolutely must provide them with a range of curation, instructional design, and technical support in order to insure that they have a good experience and that their students have a good experience. If either faculty or students have a bad experience with OER, all bets are off. The acadmeic community is built on formal peer review and less formal word of mouth recommendations.

One particularly high impact practice is to support faculty through the transition process as part of a “Z Degree” initiative in which all courses in a degree program switch from commercial textbooks to OER. This programmatic approach raises awareness of OER among faculty (the single biggest barrier to OER adoption), provides faculty with peers to brainstorm and commiserate with, and naturally encourages the institution to provide effective support across faculty’s curation, instructional design, and technology needs. When early and late majority faculty see their innovator and early adopter peers moving, hear positive stories about their experience with OER, and feel confident that they will be supported effectively they will be more willing to move. We should have a near-term goal of creating significantly more Z Degree programs. I certainly do.

How do we create recognition of the value of OER among those who control the incentive architectures?

We need to tell the OER story in a wide range of ways. Most importantly, we have to know who we’re talking to and what language they speak. For some audiences, we will need to speak the language of experimental design and quantitative efficacy studies published in peer reviewed outlets. For others, we will need to use the language of anecdotes combined with first hand student accounts. Legislators and administrators will care about funding, costs, and parent and student attitudes. Faculty will care about efficacy and academic freedom. Students will care about costs, grades, and time to graduation. As a community we must be conversant in these different languages so that the stories we tell are both comprehensible and compelling. The Open Policy Network is an excellent example of a specific group shaping a specific OER story for a specific audience.

I cannot stress this point enough – telling the OER story in terms that speak to us personally will only work on those rare occasions when we’re speaking to other people just like us. We can only create recognition of the value of OER by telling the OER story in terms of the values of our immediate audience.

How do we persuade those who control the incentive architectures to create incentives supporting the creation and sharing of “long-tail OER”?

First, we must recognize who the most relevant potential OER creators and sharers are. We immediately – and rightly – think of faculty as people who create and share OER. However, we should not overlook the potential of students as creators and sharers. They have incredible contributions to make to, what is after all, their own learning.

Who controls the incentive architectures for faculty and students? How might we nudge them toward adjusting incentives to become supportive of OER-related work? Once they have recognized the value of OER, we need to provide them with models for the kinds of incentives they might include in their broader incentive architectures.

Many faculty’s primary incentives are aligned with the tenure and promotion process at their institution. Faculty want to keep their jobs, get promoted, and receive raises. These are powerful incentives. The community can hack these incentives without the cooperation of those who control tenure and promotion policies, but it would be better if administrators proactively baked them in.

  • Hacked incentives. The community can establish peer reviewed journals which review and publish OER. This would allow faculty to spend some of their “research” time on OER and still be rewarded for it within their existing tenure and promotion frameworks.
  • Authentic incentives. Institutions can modify their tenure and promotion guidelines to directly recognize and reward faculty for the creation and sharing of OER.
  • Specific incentives. Institutions can change the default expectation of faculty from “two research articles per year” to one research article and one significant contribution to OER each year.
  • Research incentives. For many faculty, their research productivity is judged in part by how successful they are at securing grants. Funding agencies and foundations can implement policies requiring grantees to share all educational materials created with grant funds as OER. (Several already have.)

The widespread availability of incentives like these for faculty could essentially solve the problems around the creation and maintenance of OER for all subject areas, including boutique and long-tail courses.

Many students’ incentives are aligned with the requirements outlined on their course syllabi. Pause for a minute and think about the amount of effort US students expend trying to complete the tasks faculty set for them each year. Here’s a quick back of the envelope:

  • 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. I’ll estimate that only 20% 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 20% of that time spent on disposable assignments = 160 million hours spent by students on disposable assignments. Every year. Year after year.

If a tiny fraction of faculty would replace their disposable assignments with renewable assignments – a key part of the transition to open pedagogy – and offer extra credit to students who openly license their work (and, ethically, offer other means of earning extra credit for those who do not want to openly license their work), it could essentially solve the problems around the creation and maintenance of OER for all subject areas, including boutique and long-tail courses.

Either – or ideally both – of these changes in incentive architecture would create a situation in which sufficient OER are available to replace commercial materials in all courses where that is theoretically possible.

The Intermediate Goal

This process of encouraging OER adoptions will not always be this difficult. There is some reason to believe that adoption of and support for OER will meaningfully accelerate once 15-20% of faculty are using OER. There is a virtuous cycle at work here here – as more faculty adopt OER, and more faculty experiment with open pedagogies and other models, there will be more OER to choose from and more success stories to be told. This will make it easier and easier for the next faculty member to choose open.

As open becomes the default and the open content infrastructure is firmly established, I believe we will witness a new generation of pedagogical and other educational innovations – by faculty, students, and others – that will truly amaze us. What the internet did for communication and commerce, I believe the open content infrastructure can do for education.

Enabling the Ultimate Goal

In the statement of my ultimate goal I mentioned my hopes that the quality of education as judged by learners and access to education would improve worldwide. Above I have outlined only work to be done in the US. I feel strongly that this kind of work can only be done by locals (and I’m local to the US). However, if we succeed with this work to any degree here in the US, I believe passionate locals in other locales will adapt, localize, and build on what we learn to make similar improvements to education in their own contexts. In this regard, as in so many others, we can only hope to enable. We can hope our work on the intermediate goal enables a flurry of innovation that achieves our ultimate goal here in the US. We can hope that achieving our ultimate goal here in the US enables others to achieve similar goals elsewhere.

The Greatest Risk to Our Efforts

My greatest fear regarding this work – the greatest risk to all of our efforts – is the constant, never-ending drumbeat of those working to dilute the concept of “open” into merely “free” or “affordable.” (It doesn’t matter whether they do this as a specific anti-open strategy or whether they do it simply out of ignorance.) A free or affordable but highly restrictive content infrastructure does not enable “ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle.” It enables a tiny handful of experiments conducted by those few with the resources necessary to navigate the permissions issues. In other words, it preserves the status quo. If we hope to facilitate internet-like levels of innovation in education, experimentation must be permissionless. That absolutely requires an open content infrastructure – one that provides at least the 5R permissions. We must actively and energetically defend “open” if we hope to achieve our goals.