Reducing Friction in OER Adoption

Last week I promised I would write a few posts about reducing friction with regard to OER. When I use the phrase “reducing friction” in this context, I mean taking things that are needlessly difficult and making them much easier. In last week’s post I talked about how we’re making it ridiculously easy for students, faculty, and others to contribute to the maintenance and improvement of OER. In this post, I want to talk about making it ridiculously easy for faculty to adopt OER.

“How much easier could it be?” you might ask. “You find a PDF of an open textbook for your class, you upload it into your LMS, and you’re done!”

While we could make a long list of the ways reality could be improved, the reality today in US higher education is that many faculty rely heavily on learning materials in their teaching. These materials frequently include some integrated configuration of instructional content, quizzes, homework systems that provide infinite practice, automatic grading, and immediate feedback, teaching helps like Powerpoints and pacing guides, and analytics tools that give faculty some view into how their individual students (and course as a whole) are doing. Over the years I’ve seen over and over again that many faculty are understandably hesitant to walk away from these constellations of supports and instead adopt a static PDF open textbook in order to save students money. It’s not easy to swap your old textbook for a free PDF and then try to replace all the things publishers were providing you by yourself. Many faculty understand that systems that provide students practice with immediate, targeted feedback support better student learning, and that analytics and related tools can help them be more effective teachers. None of these technologies are things a “normal” teacher is in a position to reproduce for themselves.

Of course there are always “early adopters” who love trying everything new, seem to have boundless energy and enthusiasm, appear to feel immune to the pressures normally associated with tenure and promotion, and quite often do amazing things. They’ll just write their own LMS, practice system, analytics, or other replacement tools themselves. Or remix existing open source tools to meet their needs. But, relative to the total number of people teaching in colleges and universities, this early adopter group is very, very small. If we want to facilitate a wide-scale shift away from traditionally copyrighted materials to OER, we have to meet these other faculty – the overwhelming majority of faculty – where they currently are.

A Wide-Scale Shift

And just to be clear, I do want to facilitate a wide-scale shift away from traditionally copyrighted materials to OER. I still wholeheartedly believe what I wrote in a series of grant applications to the Shuttleworth Foundation beginning back in 2012 (the Shuttleworth Foundation generously provided some of Lumen’s initial funding and still owns a stake in the company):

Education is more important than ever before. Nothing else can do as much to promote happiness, prosperity, and security for individuals, families, and societies. And while many novel and useful experiments are occurring outside formal education, the degrees, certificates, and other credentials awarded by formal institutions are still critically important to many people….

My long-term goal is to create a world where OER are used pervasively throughout primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. In this vision of the world, OER replace traditional, expensive textbooks for all primary, secondary, and post-secondary courses. Organizations, faculty, and students at all three levels collaborate to create and improve an openly licensed content infrastructure that dramatically reduces the cost of education, increases student success, and supports rapid experimentation and innovation in education.

The history of innovation is, in many ways, a graveyard filled with the incorporeal corpses of ideas that early adopters loved, but that languished and ultimately died because they could not make it across the chasm to reach the rest of us. This is still a very real risk for OER. Will OER find mainstream acceptance and adoption? It’s easy to believe that it already has if you spend most of your time inside the open education community bubble. But at OpenEd19, Jeff Seaman of the Babson Survey Research Group (which has conducted nationwide surveys of higher ed faculty attitudes toward OER since 2014) described a likely future in which “OER will remain a niche-only presence (or even worse)”. According to Babson’s most recent survey, about 2/3 of faculty reported having no plans to even consider using OER in the next three years. Only 6% said they plan to use OER over the next three years. We’re clearly not anywhere close to achieving wide-scale adoption.


One of the less obvious reasons innovations can struggle to make it across the chasm is because purists among the early adopters can’t stomach the transformation that is necessary for an idea to find mainstream adoption, and they fight actively against it. One vivid example of this kind of pushback comes from the history of computing.

From the Command Line to the GUI

Once upon a time, computing was all about the command line. To use a computer, you had to know commands, and you had to type them in at the prompt. Not only did you have to know the commands, you had to know the “flags” or command line arguments to use with them. Something like  rm -rf * . Often, when you wanted to use a piece of software, you had to get a copy of the source code and build the software yourself. This process was often fraught with difficulties. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, referenced these difficulties in his email announcing the first availability of Linux source code:

Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you 🙂

Later in the email he would claim that Linux “has been known to work. Heh” and that you would “need to be something of a hacker to set it up.” These acknowledgements of how difficult it could be to get the software running were actually meant as enticements to get people engaged. Of course commercial software existed that did the same things Linux did, but Linus wanted to write an operating system himself – one that other people “might enjoy looking at it and even modifying it for their own needs.” This was a common vision of the world of computing at the time – it was a place for people with expertise and time to spend. Some of the resentment people feel about this attitude toward computing is captured in a meme that makes the rounds each year.

Other people eventually had a vision of taking computing “to the masses.” They understood that normal people were never going to spend the time necessary to learn commands, arguments, and how to fight with a computer in order to compile their own software. If the power of computing was going to reach everyone, a much, much easier to use model was needed. Enter the Graphical User Interface, with its windows, icons, pointing, and clicking. In his essay In the Beginning Was the Command Line, famed sci-fi author Neal Stephenson summarizes the backlash against the GUI:

The introduction of the Mac triggered a sort of holy war in the computer world. Were GUIs a brilliant design innovation that made computers more human-centered and therefore accessible to the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human society, or an insulting bit of audiovisual gimcrackery dreamed up by flaky Bay Area hacker types that stripped computers of their power and flexibility and turned the noble and serious work of computing into a childish video game?

It was a huge leap going from this:

page fully of code compile errors

to this:

old skool mac user interface

I’m glad Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and others pushed forward with developing, commercializing, and making GUI-based operating systems widely available. While the power users are still doing amazing things at the command line even today, the overwhelming majority of the people who use a desktop or handheld computer today use a GUI. And even though it is admittedly less flexible than working at the command line and writing and compiling your own software, people still accomplish amazing things working through a GUI. One might rightly claim that the GUI democratized access to the power of computing.

From OER to OER Courseware

There are some people in the open education community who don’t believe OER should be embedded in courseware. One of their complaints is about the degree to which embedding OER in courseware may make it more difficult for faculty or students to engage in the 5R activities. I completely agree that it is more difficult in this context. When you’re just using an open textbook in a remix-optimized platform, you can change anything anywhere with minimal consideration. When you’re using OER courseware in a learning-optimized platform, and all the content is individually aligned to learning outcomes, practice opportunities, formative assessments, and summative assessments, then changes you make to content have to percolate through the whole system. A failure to follow through with the cascade of required changes can lead to highly undesirable outcomes – like removing all the content and practice related to a topic, but forgetting to remove the associated questions on the quiz. Or breaking the outcome alignments that enable analytics tools to make study suggestions to students or outreach suggestions to faculty.

I see this as exactly the issue the software community struggled with when thinking about the GUI vs the command line. Yes, there’s more flexibility available if you put OER into a remix-optimized platform. But when all the OER, homework, supplementals, exams, analytics, and other tools are outcome aligned and well integrated in a learning-optimized platform, OER courseware is significantly easier to adopt than a PDF.

OER courseware can reach the overwhelming majority of faculty where they currently are – while simultaneously improving student outcomes and dramatically reducing costs. As I explained at some length a few years ago, this is the three-part framework we use to think about our impact: impact = (learning gains) x (cost savings) x (number of students). Creating OER courseware allows us to increase all three components of the framework simultaneously.


Compiling and running UNIX based code on Mac OSX by Mustafa from is licensed CC BY SA.

Mac UI image from is unlicensed.