Open Doesn’t Guarantee Outcomes: It Creates Opportunity

It’s a real compliment to be compared to John Perry Barlow, even if it’s because someone is claiming you’re both wrong in the same way. Nate’s post this week compares statements by JPB and me, and finds them both too simplistic in their optimism. He writes:

To me, both cyberspace and OER are tools that I think can be used to generate positive outcomes, but can also (very clearly I think) be used to generate outcomes I don’t support, like political polarization or business models that sell us back our experiences rather than proprietary content. While cyberspace and OER both have inherent structural characteristics, none of those characteristics guarantee any specific social outcome. To argue otherwise would require a kind of technological determinism, right?

So in the same way I might look askance at the idea of cyberspace healing a fragmented society, I might also question whether an intensifying adoption of OER in commercial educational publishers is necessarily a good thing for education. The Internet might spread and OER may “win” (to paraphrase David), but neither necessarily guarantees the outcomes I want to see.

Nate is absolutely right. Adopting an open approach does not guarantee the positive outcomes we want in education, in our society, or anywhere else. A few recent examples may help to prove this point, of which I am all too keenly aware:

It wasn’t that long ago that we published a paper showing that OER print on demand can end up costing more than just buying commercial textbooks. (We should update that study for a world in which a printed OpenStax math textbook costs $58 and aligned online homework costs $23 from WebAssign or $30 from XYZ or $40 from Knewton.) Replacing your old textbook with OER does not guarantee that you save $100.

It wasn’t that long ago that we published another paper showing that, even when you openly license learning materials and place them in a relatively easy to use editing environment, faculty engage in disappointingly little revise and remix activity.  Replacing your old textbook with OER does not guarantee localized, relevant teaching materials.

It wasn’t that long ago that we saw the first good research demonstrating that OER adoption can have negative impacts on student learning, which now sits alongside several studies showing no difference in student learning when faculty adopt OER. Replacing your old textbook with OER does not guarantee better learning results for students.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that there are countless ways OER creation, adoption, and maintenance can go wrong. In 20 years of working on open content projects ranging in size from my own small graduate classes to working with hundreds of faculty spread across the US in both grant-funded and fee-for-service partnerships, I’ve personally experienced most of the ways things can go wrong with OER (and published about many of them).

Openly licensing educational resources provides no guarantees for student learning. To Nate’s point about the JPB quote, an open internet provides no guarantees for society. Generally speaking, open provides no guarantees whatsoever. That’s not what open does. Open creates opportunity. Open makes things possible. Open provides permissions and removes obstacles.

Open creates opportunity. But I feel rather strongly that creating opportunity is not enough. I believe our collective two-fold task is to (1) advance the cause of open – the cause of creating greater opportunity – and (2) simultaneously work to ensure that people and organizations are able to leverage these greater opportunities for good (whatever that word means in their local context). As I wrote in the essay Nate pointed to, in the context of education the good I’m trying to accomplish with open is improving student learning, lowering costs, and reaching more students. My sense of the importance of this two-fold task is why I advocate for openness and the 5Rs (to create greater opportunity) and why Kim and I created Lumen (to help people and organizations leverage the opportunities created by open effectively in service of the good they’re trying to do) because we didn’t want others to make the same mistakes we had made.

Openness doesn’t guarantee the positive outcomes we want for education or society, but there is one guarantee I can confidently make with regard to open – we cannot achieve the education or society we aspire to without it.