It’s a Long Game After All

It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a long game after all.

OER advocacy, like most work, is filled alternately with advances and setbacks. Speaking from firsthand experience, because I live in the “day to day” of the work it can be all too easy for whatever is happening in the moment to dominate my feelings, influence my mood, and generally make my life a rollercoaster of emotions. (Sound familiar?)

From time to time it’s useful – and emotionally healthy – to step back and remember that transitioning all of higher education away from traditionally copyrighted materials and onto open educational resources is both (1) a long game in its own right, and (2) only one step in an even longer effort to increase faculty and student agency, unlock creativity, and ultimately improve student learning.

Much of the response to my recent post about the role of practice in learning was utterly predictable. Some of the responses criticized my discussion of the importance of practice as promoting “drill and kill.” I interpret this as a lack of imagination, assuming there is only one possible design for computer-mediated practice with feedback. But other responses called the discussion of practice unimaginative and accused me of underestimating the pedagogical change that OER is capable of catalyzing. It’s this second reaction that I want to respond to briefly.

There’s a lot of ground to cover between where we are today and a sector-wide, radical re-imagining of pedagogy based on the affordances of OER. For example, I’ve been co-writing OER textbooks with students since my Spring 2005 course Advanced Topics in Learning Object Design and Reuse, followed by Project Management for Instructional Designers, and then An Open Education Reader. After almost 15 years now, I still feel like I’m just barely scratching the surface of what OER-enabled pedagogy can be. (It’s a long game after all.)

But here’s the thing. Faculty can’t re-imagine their pedagogy in the context of the affordances of OER if they’re not using OER. And why aren’t they using OER in their classes? Here’s a few reasons:

  • First, the overwhelming majority of faculty still don’t know that OER exist. According to the most recent (2018) Babson Survey covering OER, only 31% of faculty are either “Very Aware” or “Aware” of OER.
  • Second, OER simply don’t exist for the overwhelming majority of courses. My recent, and I believe very generous, estimate is that sufficient OER exists to replace textbooks in around 300 courses (out of something like 4000 courses in an institution’s catalog).
  • Third, the overwhelming majority of the few OER that do exist aren’t integrated with a system that provides online interactive practice and assessment. The same Babson Survey referenced above states that 39% of faculty require students to use an online homework system for their classes (p. 14). (Just to point it out explicitly – more faculty assign online homework systems than even know that OER exist.) I would estimate that 20% – 25% of the 300 or so collections of OER from the previous bullet (60 – 75 classes total) currently have an integrated online homework system available as an option.

I fully appreciate that basic awareness raising, and creating long-tail OER for niche or small enrollment classes, and the painstaking work of integrating OER with systems that provide online interactive practice and assessment may not be as exciting as a blue sky re-imagining of pedagogy. But if want everyone to have the opportunity to benefit from OER, we have to begin by making it possible for everyone to use OER. That means making sure that faculty know that “OER” exist, making sure that the specific OER faculty need for their specific course exist, and making sure that the supporting materials and functionality that faculty require in order to adopt OER exist.

It’s a very long game. Don’t let the small steps we need to take today confuse you into thinking otherwise. Even the goal of replacing all traditionally copyrighted materials with OER is only an interim step, laying the foundation for much bigger things to come.

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