open content research

Educational and Cost Effectiveness: OER vs Traditional Textbooks

I’m very happy to announce that BYU has just received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The pilot project will examine the deeper learning and cost savings that can be achieved when open textbooks replace traditional, expensive textbooks in public high school science classrooms.

15-20 public high school science teachers in Utah will replace their expensive, traditional textbooks with open textbooks from for the 2010-2011 school year. Approximately 2,000 students will be impacted by the changes. Most will use printed versions of the books, while a few hundred students in one-to-one schools will use the online versions of the books on netbooks or iPads. Teachers will continue to supplement the CK12 books with additional resources and activities just as they have historically supplemented expensive, traditional textbooks.

Because expensive, traditional textbooks have to be passed from student to student over 4-7 years, students are typically prohibited from marking in the books in any way. By contrast, because the open textbooks are so inexpensive as to be considered consumables (from a budget perspective), students will be able to engage these books through active study processes like highlighting and annotating. These active study strategies may promote deeper learning for participating students. This difference provides a theoretically grounded reason for us to anticipate OER being more educationally effective than their expensive, traditional counterparts.

At the end of the school year, test scores of participating students on the state of Utah’s Criterion-Referenced Test (CRT) will be compared to the CRT scores of nonparticipants in comparable classrooms. We hypothesize modest gains in student performance for those participating in the study due to their ability to utilize active study strategies with the open textbooks.

Throughout the project we will carefully monitor costs associated with the use of the open textbooks for comparison purposes. At the end of the school year we will report on the comparative costs of using open textbooks in traditional public school science classrooms. We anticipate curriculum cost savings of approximately 50%.

OER have not yet had the impact they are capable of making. By empirically demonstrating that OER can simultaneously promote deeper student learning and save districts and schools significant financial resources, we hope to catalyze significant a uptake of OER in public schools.

open content

Next Gen Learning Challenges Announced

Diana Oblinger, the President of EDUCAUSE, today announced the Next Gen Learning Challenges program. Information about the program, including the involvement of the Gates and Hewlett Foundations, is included in Diane’s announcement letter below. I’m humbled to serve on the Advisory Panel for the program, and am deeply interested in the topics of the first set of challenges identified for grant-making:

  • Challenge 1: Open Core Courseware
    Expand access to high-quality, openly licensed courseware for developmental and general education.
  • Challenge 2: Web 2.0 Engagement
    Integrate interactive Web 2.0 approaches to stimulate deeper learning and ultimately improve college readiness and completion.
  • Challenge 3: Blended Learning
    Expand the use of established, effective online and face-to-face learning models on a cost-effective basis.
  • Challenge 4: Learning Analytics
    Foster the development and implementation of easily accessible learning analytics for those directly involved in student success.

The announcement reads:

I would like to introduce you to a new program designed to improve college readiness and completion. The Next Gen Learning Challenges will provide grants, build evidence of what works, and develop an active community committed to helping young adults prepare for college and complete their postsecondary education. You will find more information at

The program seeks to identify and scale technology-enabled approaches that dramatically improve college readiness and completion, particularly for low-income young adults. The partners for this initiative are the Gates Foundation, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The rationale for the program is compelling. Only half of high school graduates leave school prepared to succeed in college. For those who do enroll in postsecondary education, a little over half of them will actually earn a degree. Positions requiring postsecondary education or training will make up 64 percent of all job openings by 2018. Today it is virtually impossible to reach the middle class, and stay there, with only a high school diploma. By age 30, fewer than half of all Americans have earned a college degree. America must improve college readiness and completion—our society and our economy depend on it. Technology can be a key tool for making learning more flexible, engaging, and affordable?important elements in helping today’s high school and college students achieve academic success.

The next several weeks are a “Request for Comments” period during which the community is invited to share knowledge and comment to help refine the initial phase of the program. I invite you to:

– visit the Next Gen Learning Challenges website ( to learn about college readiness and completion in the United States
– contribute research, resources, and perspectives on the Next Gen Learning Challenges
– engage in discussion forums targeting key questions

I hope you will join the conversation.

open content

Identifying concrete pedagogical benefits of open educational resources

Here’s one of the proposals I submitted for Open Ed 2010:

The most naïve kind of hype around open educational resources (OER) says that OER are more effective pedagogically than proprietary educational resources (PER). Can we justify this claim?

First, it is critically important that we understand that “effectiveness” is not characteristic of an educational resource. Without a proper conception of the origin of “effectiveness” we cannot ask meaningful questions about the comparative effectiveness of OER and PER – because we will not know where to look.

A similar lesson is taught by item response theory (IRT). IRT teaches us that an assessment item does not have a “difficulty” independent of the individual who is attempting to answer the item. While an assessment item may be “hard” for a novice to answer correctly, the same item will be “easy” for an expert. Consequently, we cannot talk about the difficulty of an item without talking about the expertise of the person attempting the item. “Difficulty” is a property of an item-individual pair.

Likewise, “effectiveness” is a property of a resource-individual pair. A resource that perfectly meets the needs of one individual may be completely inappropriate for a second individual. Consequently, we cannot talk about the effectiveness of an OER or PER without talking about the person using the resource.

One important difference between educational resources and assessment items is that while there is typically only one way to “use” an assessment item, there are many ways to “use” an educational resource. Pedagogically, the most important difference between an OER and a PER is the additional ways an OER can be used that are prohibited with a PER. When a resource-individual pair has access to an expanded repertoire of uses, we have a rational foundation for believing that increased learning may occur.

For example, a pilot project in Utah high schools is deploying printed copies of OER science textbooks in place of traditional PER textbooks. Before we can ask if students will learn more from the OER textbooks we should have a theoretically responsible, pedagogically-founded (i.e., new-type-of-use-founded) rationale for the question. For example:

PER science textbooks cost at least $80 each. Because they are so expensive, these textbooks have a four-year service period and must be protected so they can be used by different students. Consequently, students are generally prohibited from writing notes, underlining, highlighting, or otherwise annotating their textbooks. Printed OER science textbooks cost about $10. Because they are so inexpensive, a new OER textbook can be purchased each year for each student. When a big-ticket item ($80) becomes a consumable ($10), students can be allowed to write notes, underline, highlight, and otherwise annotate their textbooks. When students can use their textbooks in this new way, engaging in more active study strategies, we have a theoretically responsible, pedagogically-founded reason to believe that students using the OER will learn more than students using the PER.

In this session, we will discuss new uses enabled by OER that give us theoretically responsible, pedagogically-founded reasons for believing that OER can be more effective educationally than PER.