Of OER and Platforms: Five Years Later

Five years ago, in an essay called 2017: RIP OER?, I pondered whether this year would be the end of OER. The bulk of my concern was expressed in these two paragraphs:

Open education currently has no response to the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers. To the best of my knowledge there is no one really working on next gen OER – OER that are interactive, simulative, really rich with multimedia AND combined with OAR [open assessment resources] that drive diagnosis, remediation, and adaptation. There’s certainly no one funding next gen OER. And believe me – if it took $100M to get the field to where it currently stands in terms of relatively static openly licensed content, it will take at least that much investment again over the next decade for the field to do something truly next gen.

Because this stuff costs so much to do, if no one steps up to the funding plate the entire field is at serious risk. Much has been written about 2012 being “the year of OER.” Let’s hope it’s not the year OER peaks. We need brains, energy, and funding on the next gen OER/OAR problem NOW.

These publisher platforms can have real benefits. For example, imagine two versions of a College Algebra course. In the first, you go home after class, do your homework on paper, and then bring it to class and turn it in. Three to five days later, when the teacher returns your paper, you find out if you actually understood the math. (If you didn’t, what do you do now?) In the second scenario, you do homework in an online system that automatically grades each practice problem in real time and provides you with feedback about your performance.

Then imagine these scenarios from the instructor’s perspective – in the first, you’re grading some papers while coordinating TAs who are supposed to be grading the others (but occasionally aren’t pulling their weight), without ever really knowing what’s going on in the class because you don’t see all the students’ work. In the second, the work is all graded automatically and you have some reporting view of where the class is succeeding and where they’re struggling.

I (and my teammates at Lumen) have heard over and over and over and over again from math faculty some variation on “I’m never going back to hand-grading homework.” No matter how much their current math textbook and online practice system costs, no matter how good the math OER are that can replace their current textbook, if there’s no platform that provides immediate feedback to students and frees up faculty for more engaging uses of their time, there will be no OER adoption. This is a case where OER adoption could actually be a step backwards, both for students and faculty.

Whether publishers have pushed forward with these platforms because they see their benefit to students and faculty, or because they see them as a bulwark against OER, they are increasingly successful in advocating for them with faculty. What you once heard only from math faculty (“I’m never going back to hand-grading”) you now hear from faculty across disciplines from economics to chemistry to psychology. An OER advocate that walks into a faculty office and argues for them to trade their current arrangement (which increases the speed with which students receive feedback and decreases the time faculty spend grading) for static OER is going to sound like they understand very little about the realities of teachers and students. And they’re not going to be a very successful advocate.

Much of the OER movement has a bad attitude about platforms. (And if 2017 is the end of the road for our vision of the transformative power of OER, it will be our own fault.) We think platforms like Pearson’s MyLab and Cengage’s MindTap are the enemy. There is a lot of baby and a lot of bathwater to platforms like these, but we seem to be incapable of having a grown up conversation on this topic. Yes, price gouging students is immoral, unethical, and deplorable, everywhere it happens – including on the platform side. Yes, leasing students temporary access to OER locked inside a platform, only to shut them out at the end of term, is ridiculous. Yes, working actively to erode the student-faculty relationship – or worse, somehow obviate the faculty role – by trying to create “a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind” is entirely wrong-headed. (Those who worship at the altar of scale will eventually find themselves sacrificed thereon.)


Yes, algorithmically generating practice opportunities so that students can get all the practice they need is better for learning than 50 problems at the end of a chapter. (Only the odd problems have solutions.) Yes, providing immediate feedback to students supports their learning better than feedback that comes only after lengthy delays (if at all). Yes, providing faculty with a more detailed view of what students are struggling with can help them make better use of time in class. And yes, freeing up faculty from grading so they can spend more time with students is good for both faculty and students.

This is where imagination becomes important. OER advocates need to recognize that the benefits of these kinds of platforms can exist independent of the problems traditionally associated with them. Just because publishers attach extremely unattractive prices, terms of use, and “features” to their versions of these platforms doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to design and create better versions that maximize the benefits while minimizing the problems.

Another way in which the OER movement’s thinking about platforms gets turned around is our obsession with discovery and assembly. Those of us (first person inclusive pronoun) who are madly in love with OER imagine that – like us – other faculty want to spend time searching for OER on Google and in other collections, locating small pieces of content, and bringing these dozens or hundreds of pieces together to create a cohesive learning experience for students. They don’t. Time and again we have seen that – even when provided with permissions and tools – the overwhelming majority of faculty do not engage in revise and remix types of activities. (The exceptions to this rule are awesome, but they are exceptions nonetheless.)

Of course the new platforms we need will support and encourage revise and remix – I believe that as faculty mature in their understanding of OER they will have a greater desire to engage in these and other open pedagogy practices. However, believing that these types of activities are the front door through which new faculty want to enter the world of OER is just wrong. Like normal people generally do, normal faculty are looking for the easiest way to do things – in this case, make the transition from traditional publisher materials to OER. This is why ready-to-use options like open textbooks from OpenStax or open courseware from Lumen Learning are so popular among faculty – they’re super easy to adopt and use right now. The tinkering and revising and remixing can come later.

Our twenty-year-old desire to “finally” end the problems associated with OER discovery and assembly distract us from the bigger need to create platforms that can deliver OER in a way that faculty members who have used modern publisher systems will be willing to adopt. Making it easier to find and combine videos and book chapters for static delivery isn’t going to lead to widespread OER adoption. (You can argue that it might have made a difference in 2007, but it won’t in 2017.)

Our fixation on discovery and assembly also distracts us from other serious platform needs – like platforms for the collaborative development of OER and open assessments (assessments are the lifeblood of this new generation of platforms), where faculty and students can work together to create and update the core materials that support learning in our institutions. Our work in OER will never be truly sustainable until faculty and students jointly own this process, and that can’t happen until a new category of tools emerges that enables and supports this critical work. (Grant money for OER creation won’t last forever.)

And don’t even start trying to explain how the LMS is the answer. Just don’t.

Returning to the original essay from 2012… The Gates Foundation’s 2014 Next Generation Courseware Challenge grants provided funding for the kind of work described above, resulting in things like OpenStax Tutor and Lumen’s Waymaker. I’m particularly proud of what we’ve done (and continue to do) with Waymaker, but I also recognize that this problem won’t be solved with one round of grant funding and fewer than ten organizations participating. The conversation needs to be larger, the sense of urgency needs to be greater, and the vision and imagination of what’s possible needs to be far, far broader.

PDFs aren’t going to get us there. We need more efforts to provide the benefits of publishers’ “adaptive” systems while honoring and enabling the values of the OER community (e.g., the 5Rs and open pedagogy) and more support of these efforts.

The tl;dr is this: faculty (who make the decision about what resources will be used by students) love these systems, and with good reason – they can make things better for students and faculty alike. If the OER community doesn’t recognize that and start providing and promoting viable alternatives to publishers’ platforms, the best possible future for OER is being locked down inside a Pearson MyLab playing second fiddle to proprietary content. No 5Rs and no open pedagogy. See my notes on the recent MindTap ACE announcement for a “real world example.”

11 thoughts on “Of OER and Platforms: Five Years Later”

  1. So, who *should* start with the LMS?
    Couldn’t the LMS be a platform that would facilitate easier “locating small pieces of content, and bringing these dozens or hundreds of pieces together to create a cohesive learning experience for students “?
    I see amazing and wonderful potential for OER to be even more adaptive and inclusive than the stuff of ALEKS, but oh, the organization needed…

  2. I missed the part where you explained why we must not consider LMSs. It appears to me that the gentleman doth protest too much. LMSs properly supported, are very good ‘platforms’ for all kinds of assessment and analytics. And, more importantly, control of the LMSs can remain in the hands of the faculty where it should be if they choose to exercise that authority. Of course, if faculty are only interested in the easiest way to do things, well, then, they can always pay someone or have someone else pay for the difficult parts of teaching and learning.

    • “LMSs properly supported, are very good ‘platforms’ for all kinds of assessment and analytics.” This is demonstrably false. Just taking the first example that comes to mind, LMSs cannot do Computerized Adaptive Testing no matter how they’re supported – unless “properly supported” means integrating third-party tools to get access to features the LMS doesn’t natively support. And (what we now call) CAT is a technique over a century old, originally implemented without computers…

      I admire your “use the tools you already have” attitude, and there is certainly more that can be done in the LMS context than many faculty currently do. But the LMS just can’t compete with more specialized platforms in terms of features, and many of these features are imminently useful in support of learning.

      Back in 2009 Jon Mott and I outlined what I still feel is the most productive way to think about the LMS (see http://ineducation.ca/ineducation/article/view/53/529 – I recommend reading the whole article) – as a hub that supports LTI integration of third party tools (say, an e-portfolio tool) with campus systems (say, the SIS). When Blackboard or Instructure or any other LMS vendor tries to also create blogs, wikis, e-portfolios, and every other feature faculty might want, they will ALWAYS do a sub-par job because their resources are spread too thin. But if you view the LMS as an integration hub to get specialty tools talking to the SIS, and those tools are created by people whose sole focus is making them awesome, then teachers and learners can have access to truly great tools.

      Even the LMS vendors recognize this is true, as evidenced by things like the Canvas App Store (https://www.canvaslms.com/news/press-releases/instructure-announces-canvas-app-center) and other efforts (like creating and supporting the LTI standard) to make it easier to integrate third-party tools into all the major LMSs.

      • Hollowing out the LMS is the only road they have towards innovation; if one of those common launch points was an OER provider that could be at least slightly more useful but I agree that when faculty treat their course as more of a website (ala Paul Hibbits GravCMS approach — http://paulhibbitts.net/) it’s the way forward.

        Dr. Chuck is working on Tsugi to app-ify the LMS and unbundle it as well, which could make OER proliferation more possible at the system level. https://www.tsugi.org/

        I also have my own methodology in the game that sees the LMS fragmented (architecturally) so that policy can be crafted in a way that allows open aspects of course (content) to be open while closed experiences (private student – teacher engagements) can happen securely along side. https://www.elmsln.org/

        All three of these approaches are signs of the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) which is NOT a product but a mindset and a way of implementing education which I think will directly result in greater adoption (or at least production as Open first) of OER. When systems unbundle, ownership can privacy can be unbundled as well.

  3. David, thank you for again contributing to the meaningful progress of the OER ecosystem and a thoughtful recognition of the multiple elements required for accelerating progress. About a year ago, the Unizin Consortium posted our “An Evolutionary Unizin Approach for Commercial and OER Content” that I think recognizes some of these principles (link below to the Unizin Blog).

    We now have in place greater authoring, publishing, and discovery tools across a range of content types. Student can consume OER, faculty-authored content (free or for fee), and publisher content on the common Unizin Engage eReader/annotation software. All of the clicks for policy-compliant research can be done within the Unizin data warehouse to enable our faculty to study more deeply the efficacy of alternate pedagogical approaches course tracks. All of this from authoring to consumption to analytics is on a platform that is within the control of the academy. It does also include favorable pricing when our faculty wish to make use of some of the publisher platforms that are, as you note, growing in value in the eyes of instructors and students if they can be priced fairly for value.

    There is MUCH work to do, and I am in no way implying that Unizin yet has this all figured out, and we affirm others who are contributing through other approaches. We do have a meaningful step, and we are learning and adapting together as we try to offer faculty a platform for content from any source they value and at the best negotiated prices possible.

    Speaking for IU, we are also very encouraged by phenomenal year over year growth (54% over last year) of our five year old eText program (now offered through Unizin). It acquires digital content at favorable pricing and provides faculty an option to choose an All Students Acquire model with bursar billing. The program will surpass $6M this academic year, and as you note, compelling offer that fuels faculty voluntary *adoption* has been the key.

    We agree that a multi-mode, comprehensive approach is needed for the progress that we all seek to aid effective learning and reduce the cost of attendance.

    IU Vice President and CIO, Professor
    Chair, Unizin Consortium Board of Directors


  4. “(Grant money for OER creation won’t last forever.)” Scrabbling for grants has been the culture in research and education for a long time. I’m all for a working alternative.

    I had a brief fantasy of applying what I learned in Object Oriented Programming classes to OER, to create a system to facilitate revision and creation of adaptive learning tools that would be better than the ‘tutor in the sky’ stuff. The students I work with generally don’t fit algorithms, which don’t actually discern who “students just like you” are. A grant for half a dozen other people and me might be able to design it … but … you’re right, this stuff needs to be in an efficient, usable package.
    There are lots of faculty and others who by their nature are more likely to use the tech to do old things more efficiently. Then there are the people who would love to realize some of the potential of the tech for adaptability and better pedagogy… but when the stuff being released into the wild is still full of glitches and I have to make too many pedagogical sacrifices because “the computer won’t let us do that,” I’m going back to … what works for students.

  5. Thanks for bringing this back to the fore. There is a decided underinvestment in platforms because OER has been too focused on “free books” and too much of the money has gone in that direction and once that money is spent, folks think the “problem is solved”. I don’t think capitulating to commercial systems is the way forward and frankly I don’t think that even Waymaker (as nice as it is) is the solution is that it is a single-instance piece of software that is just another variation on the “hoarder mentality” where everyone wants *their collection* to be the gold standard. So every collection writes an algebra book, biology book, and writing book and makes it available in *their* platform. The right solution is a multi-instance software set – and of course it must be open source. The best examples of empowering the production of a distributed set of dynamic, engaging, remix-able is my own Tsugi project and the GravCMS work by Paul Hibbitts. Both of these are a new look at an old problem and allow anyone to produce their own contributions to the overall OER materals rather than having to repeatedly “port” our materials to the new “shiny OER collection that is trending this year”. What has to happen is for the OER participants to get out of the mode of developing competing overlapping collections from scratch and instead make it so a thousand flowers can grown so we can get beyond so many “freshman biology” texts and get a little further into the curriculum with OER.

  6. One critical piece that seems to be missing from these discussions is the changes needed to the higher education textbook market so that OER can compete on an equal footing with commercial interests. The issue is exemplified by David’s question of where the money will come from to fund desirable online assessment resources.
    Some brief historical perspective is needed, though.

    With the invention of the printing press, it made economic sense to publish scholarly material previously communicated orally in university classrooms. It was cheaper and made more efficient use of faculty teaching time. The transition from oral to written communication in the academy was a classic case of disruptive innovation. Its effects have lasted for several centuries.

    Commercial interests undertook this publishing work, to the overall benefit of the academy, including its students. Commercial interests earned a profit for the services provided.

    However, an unintended consequence was that faculty made the purchasing decisions, but the final consumers – students – paid. This worked alright as long as the net benefit provided by commercially-published texts exceeded costs to everyone involved, especially students.

    In the last few decades though, digital means of textbook production and distribution have emerged. Related costs have radically declined. However, textbook prices have not commensurately decreased because the final consumer (student) preferences now have little effect on the market. Faculty still make the purchasing decisions, and students still pay.

    Lack of direct interaction between student consumers and commercial publishers, and market concentration in the hands of only a few firms inhibits price competition and thwarts operation of normal market forces. It also can largely explain why OER is being adopted so slowly.

    Lacking incentives like release time, recognition, and production assistance to create or adapt relatively comprehensive OER themselves, most academics want presentation resources, exam banks, adaptive learning systems and other features that make the teaching process easier and reduce effort and time on their part. Commercial publishers happily comply and gain sales, even though the costs of these features make textbooks more expensive for students. Overall, costs to students are only considered important by faculty when several other selection criteria have been satisfied [Allen and Seaman (2016)]. In turn, administrators do not promote the use of OER because their institutions receive no financial reward for doing so. Students are already paying the bill, and campus bookstores earn a nice return on the markup.

    In short, financial and academic incentives are stacked in favour of commercial textbooks. The results are that students pay a high and increasing cost for their learning resources, and OER adaptation and use is thwarted.
    It also explains why government or philanthropic funding is generally needed for any OER development.

    The key question is how this can be rectified. One option would be to remove the intermediaries (faculty members) from the purchasing process by letting students decide what textbook, if any, to use. This does not seem feasible and creates obvious problems for instructors and the educative process. Further, the degree-granting monopoly granted to higher education institutions means that their administrators and faculty will stay involved in the educative process for the foreseeable future, including textbook selection decisions.

    Another means is needed to align the financial interests of intermediaries (faculty members and their institutions) and students as final consumers. Governments could decree that lower-cost OER be used by publicly-funded higher education institutions whenever possible, but this may be impractical in some fields, open to interpretation, and considered an infringement of academic freedom. In the end, the proposal is likely infeasible. It also requires continued public funding and competition for these limited grants.

    There is a relatively straight-forward solution. Governments or other relevant funding authorities should to decree that public post-secondary institutions include the cost of all learning materials in their tuition fees.

    At face value, it may be difficult to see how this would encourage the production and use of OER. Institutions would merely add the cost of commercially-produced textbooks to their fees. However, the important behavioural implication is that any subsequent cost reductions would be realized by the higher education institution. Most administrators have strong incentives to reduce costs whenever possible in the face of budget constraints. They can choose to pass savings from OER use along to students by lowering fees. But based on past experience, they are much more likely to retain cost savings to forestall further tuition hikes in the face of escalating costs in other areas. Even then, complaints from students about these savings remaining with the institution are minimal provided that the quality of the OER resources is perceived by students as equivalent to or better than commercial options.

    The proposed policy change would have other organizational effects that would encourage OER adoption. It would prompt administrators to implement policies like release time for faculty to adapt OER, and recognize that this work has scholarly merit. Faculty members would likely choose to adapt OER rather than developing proprietary, non-OER material because the costs would be lower. Since open licencing regimes like Creative Commons can be structured to require any such adaptations to be made freely-available to others, this would prevent any “free-rider” phenomena, including the temptation for institutional administrators to restrict the further distribution of OER adapted for use at a particular institution. This virtuous cycle of re-use, iterative improvement, and required dissemination should ensure that high-quality OER are produced, content remains current and readily-available to others, and the financial benefits of OER are fully realized.

    Once the financial interests of students, faculty, and educational institutions are aligned, any number of models could create self-sustaining OER revenue streams that will benefit higher education institutions and their students. With appropriately-structured financial incentives, OER production and use can flourish.

    How does this apply to the issue raised by David? In the introductory financial accounting course at my institution (Athabasca University), an OER text is now used in conjunction with a sophisticated, algorithmically generated assessment system. This platform has been developed separately by a commercial publisher.
    The assessment system is sold to AU for $80 per registration. Students get the best of both worlds – a free OER text available online or in print, and a similar or better online assessment resource. The net savings for the university are about $100 per student than the previous commercial text bundled with software, or about $170,000 per year.

    The key to the success of the project is that the cost of all learning materials is included in AU’s per-course registration fee. Because of this, AU has an incentive to adopt OER, develop a very good assessment platform, and still save a lot of money.

    To me it’s a good example of how OER, including assessment platforms, can compete with commercial interests.

    Hence the recommendation: Governments and other relevant funding authorities should decree that public post-secondary institutions include the cost of all learning materials in their tuition fees.

    It’s not complicated to implement, but it will take a lot of political will.

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