open content

The Golden Ratio of OER

I appreciate the usefulness of open educational resources in supporting informal learning as much as anyone. I also care very deeply about the adoption and use of open educational resources in formal education settings. The kinds of things I lay awake at night worrying about differ depending on which of the two I’m thinking about when I go to bed.

The more people I talk to, the more convinced I am that OER has failed to establish a digestible value proposition for formal education. For better or worse, many people caught up in the day-to-day vortex of teaching, advising, mentoring, and grading don’t have the spare time to problematize publisher-school power relations, realize the virtue of local control of curriculum materials, or fully appreciate the transformative benefits of transparency.

We need to refine our messaging if we mean to impact formal education – particularly in K-12 where so many curricular decisions are made “above” the individual teacher. Perhaps our messaging can take a cue from the intersection of the current, outcomes-obsessed political climate and the slashing of school budgets in response to global economic realities. Perhaps we should begin discussing a “golden ratio” of open educational resources that compares (1) (differences in outcomes) with (2) (differences in cost) when a OER are used instead of traditional, proprietary educational materials.

(1) I’ve written at some length about why we should anticipate the delta in learning outcomes to be near zero when comparable open educational resources and proprietary educational curriculum are measured against one another. When teachers actively take advantage of the local control provided by OER licensing and engage in substantive adaptation / localization exercises, we can reasonably hypothesize an improvement in student performance. Either way, I believe we can anticipate the “differences in outcome” factor to be zero or positive. The appropriate unit for this factor is probably a standard deviation.

(2) Differences in cost need to be accounted for completely. Time spent reviewing traditional textbooks and other curriculum materials should be compared to time spent finding OER. The costs of purchasing or licensing traditional materials, distributing at beginning of term, collecting at end of term, and storing / managing between terms should be compared to the costs of storing, standards aligning, etc. open educational resources. Costs of keeping OER up-to-date should be compared with textbook replacement costs or annual licensing fees for online curriculum. Et cetera. The appropriate unit for this factor is probably percentage change in the organization’s curriculum spend.

That gives us a golden ratio of OER that looks something like:

change in performance (as standard deviation) : change in money spent on curriculum (as percentage)

Now, it is terribly important to note that a great finding like [+0.2 : -7%] is only applicable to the specific open educational resources studied – THE FINDING DOES NOT EXTEND TO ALL OER. However, if we could demonstrate either (a) stable performance and money saved, or (b) performance gains and money saved, several times across different grade levels and subject matters, then we would have an argument that formal education would have a very difficult time ignoring. If we can’t show one of these two outcomes, we should seriously reconsider our work in the field.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I know of any OCW or OER projects looking seriously at either of these factors (though the recent CMU OLI paper in JIME is obviously headed in the right direction). If you know of any, please drop a comment below.

What do you think? Should OER have to “put up or shut up”? If so, what metrics would you use besides learning gains and cost?

open content

Lying about Personalized Learning

Champions of personalized instruction tend to fall back on the assumption that one-on-one tutoring is the most effective instructional approach but is not scalable (implicit in Bloom’s two sigma problem), and since “we all know” that group instruction is poor, we’ve no choice but to personalize using an automated computer system as our best and most effective path forward.

Now, if you’ve ever taught, you know that many students love to talk. It seems that they live to ask questions, argue, and endlessly discuss. Now, I ask you: How can removing all possibility of engaging in their favorite approach to learning (by making the computer the only entity with whom they can interact) be said to be personalization for them?

(And let’s not forget my pet hypothesis regarding the increasing importance of social interaction as one moves further up Bloom’s taxonomy. When students are working near the top of the taxonomy, the absence of social interaction will greatly decrease the efficiency of all learners.)

Systems that want to make claims to “personalize” must include multiple options for students who prefer interacting with other humans. A “full palette” of personalization options that involve variations of interactions with a single entity (the computer) is basically a monochrome palette. “Personalize your new car with any color you want! You can get it in blue, light blue, midnight blue, sky blue, Carolina blue, azurite, ultramarine, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, even Prussian blue!” (Reminiscent of the great SNL skit, “He could be green, or lime green, or mint green…”)

If we’re going to talk about “personalization,” options rich with human interaction must be part of the palette. Otherwise, we should call it what it is – a power grab by administrators forcing learners into a learning environment they do not prefer for the sake of increased efficiency.

Teacher as DJ


The notion of teacher as DJ may have been implied when people started applying the “rip-mix-burn” metaphor to education, but lately I can’t seem to get it out of my head. The similarities were there even when teachers worked primarily with paper textbooks and printed research articles, but is even more pronounced now in the era of digitized resources.

There are the obvious similarities… Both start with a collection of existing materials – acoustic resources like songs, sound effects, and samples, and educational resources like simulations, tutorials, and articles. Both sequence and blend these materials in interesting ways. Both do quite a bit of planning (think syllabus as playlist), perform in discrete blocks of time (think course meeting as set); and both have to make meaningful connections between the resources they choose to employ (think lecturing and discussion leading as beat matching).

Beat matching means getting two records perfectly in sync with each other, then using the crossfader to switch between them. Beat matching is a skill that every DJ must master. When you’re playing a rave, party, dance, or club, being able to segue (move smoothly) from one tune to another without losing the beat will help you keep the dance floor full.
from Beat Matching Tips

But it’s the similarity expressed in this last sentence that has kept me awake the last few nights. Clubbers vote with their feet, and generally do so very overtly. Learners vote with their attention, and generally do so very covertly. How do we, as teachers, “keep the dance floor full?” A skilled DJ can feel the energy coming off a crowd and respond very quickly when that group is starting to feel restless (and starting to abandon the dance floor). A skilled teacher can feel the energy coming off a class and respond very quickly when that group is starting to get restless (and starting to doodle, read books, play games on their cell phones, etc.). The DJ responds by playing different music, sticking with genres that the crowd likes. How does the teacher respond? By using different examples, sticking with the kinds of explanations that the learners resonate with? By understanding the rhythm of the class, by knowing when to “play a slow song?”

I believe that this exchange of energy between people is critically important. In all the talking we do about effective teaching, we frequently overlook this obvious, social component. I’m not sure why we expect learners to simply sit there, regardless of how unresponsive we are to the cues they give us, taking offensive if they behave as if they’re bored or complain about our classes. How would the dynamic change if learners felt free to vote with their feet like the clubbers, to walk off the dance floor whenever a class became too lame? This is exactly what online education enables them to do, and this is exactly why paying attention to the social component of these experiences is so much more critical in online learning. We must set up channels through which people can exchange this energy, and those serving as teachers must be ready and willing to respond to that energy. We must move beyond the idea that we can burn a 3 credit class onto a CD (or upload it into WebCT/Blackboard/Sakai) and hand it off to a learner with a “see you at the end of the semester.” We are DJs, and it is up to us to keep our learners on the dance floor.