Of OER and Platforms: Five Years Later

Five years ago, in an essay called 2017: RIP OER?, I pondered whether this year would be the end of OER. The bulk of my concern was expressed in these two paragraphs:

Open education currently has no response to the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers. To the best of my knowledge there is no one really working on next gen OER – OER that are interactive, simulative, really rich with multimedia AND combined with OAR [open assessment resources] that drive diagnosis, remediation, and adaptation. There’s certainly no one funding next gen OER. And believe me – if it took $100M to get the field to where it currently stands in terms of relatively static openly licensed content, it will take at least that much investment again over the next decade for the field to do something truly next gen.

Because this stuff costs so much to do, if no one steps up to the funding plate the entire field is at serious risk. Much has been written about 2012 being “the year of OER.” Let’s hope it’s not the year OER peaks. We need brains, energy, and funding on the next gen OER/OAR problem NOW.

These publisher platforms can have real benefits. For example, imagine two versions of a College Algebra course. In the first, you go home after class, do your homework on paper, and then bring it to class and turn it in. Three to five days later, when the teacher returns your paper, you find out if you actually understood the math. (If you didn’t, what do you do now?) In the second scenario, you do homework in an online system that automatically grades each practice problem in real time and provides you with feedback about your performance.

Then imagine these scenarios from the instructor’s perspective – in the first, you’re grading some papers while coordinating TAs who are supposed to be grading the others (but occasionally aren’t pulling their weight), without ever really knowing what’s going on in the class because you don’t see all the students’ work. In the second, the work is all graded automatically and you have some reporting view of where the class is succeeding and where they’re struggling.

I (and my teammates at Lumen) have heard over and over and over and over again from math faculty some variation on “I’m never going back to hand-grading homework.” No matter how much their current math textbook and online practice system costs, no matter how good the math OER are that can replace their current textbook, if there’s no platform that provides immediate feedback to students and frees up faculty for more engaging uses of their time, there will be no OER adoption. This is a case where OER adoption could actually be a step backwards, both for students and faculty.

Whether publishers have pushed forward with these platforms because they see their benefit to students and faculty, or because they see them as a bulwark against OER, they are increasingly successful in advocating for them with faculty. What you once heard only from math faculty (“I’m never going back to hand-grading”) you now hear from faculty across disciplines from economics to chemistry to psychology. An OER advocate that walks into a faculty office and argues for them to trade their current arrangement (which increases the speed with which students receive feedback and decreases the time faculty spend grading) for static OER is going to sound like they understand very little about the realities of teachers and students. And they’re not going to be a very successful advocate.

Much of the OER movement has a bad attitude about platforms. (And if 2017 is the end of the road for our vision of the transformative power of OER, it will be our own fault.) We think platforms like Pearson’s MyLab and Cengage’s MindTap are the enemy. There is a lot of baby and a lot of bathwater to platforms like these, but we seem to be incapable of having a grown up conversation on this topic. Yes, price gouging students is immoral, unethical, and deplorable, everywhere it happens – including on the platform side. Yes, leasing students temporary access to OER locked inside a platform, only to shut them out at the end of term, is ridiculous. Yes, working actively to erode the student-faculty relationship – or worse, somehow obviate the faculty role – by trying to create “a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind” is entirely wrong-headed. (Those who worship at the altar of scale will eventually find themselves sacrificed thereon.)


Yes, algorithmically generating practice opportunities so that students can get all the practice they need is better for learning than 50 problems at the end of a chapter. (Only the odd problems have solutions.) Yes, providing immediate feedback to students supports their learning better than feedback that comes only after lengthy delays (if at all). Yes, providing faculty with a more detailed view of what students are struggling with can help them make better use of time in class. And yes, freeing up faculty from grading so they can spend more time with students is good for both faculty and students.

This is where imagination becomes important. OER advocates need to recognize that the benefits of these kinds of platforms can exist independent of the problems traditionally associated with them. Just because publishers attach extremely unattractive prices, terms of use, and “features” to their versions of these platforms doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to design and create better versions that maximize the benefits while minimizing the problems.

Another way in which the OER movement’s thinking about platforms gets turned around is our obsession with discovery and assembly. Those of us (first person inclusive pronoun) who are madly in love with OER imagine that – like us – other faculty want to spend time searching for OER on Google and in other collections, locating small pieces of content, and bringing these dozens or hundreds of pieces together to create a cohesive learning experience for students. They don’t. Time and again we have seen that – even when provided with permissions and tools – the overwhelming majority of faculty do not engage in revise and remix types of activities. (The exceptions to this rule are awesome, but they are exceptions nonetheless.)

Of course the new platforms we need will support and encourage revise and remix – I believe that as faculty mature in their understanding of OER they will have a greater desire to engage in these and other open pedagogy practices. However, believing that these types of activities are the front door through which new faculty want to enter the world of OER is just wrong. Like normal people generally do, normal faculty are looking for the easiest way to do things – in this case, make the transition from traditional publisher materials to OER. This is why ready-to-use options like open textbooks from OpenStax or open courseware from Lumen Learning are so popular among faculty – they’re super easy to adopt and use right now. The tinkering and revising and remixing can come later.

Our twenty-year-old desire to “finally” end the problems associated with OER discovery and assembly distract us from the bigger need to create platforms that can deliver OER in a way that faculty members who have used modern publisher systems will be willing to adopt. Making it easier to find and combine videos and book chapters for static delivery isn’t going to lead to widespread OER adoption. (You can argue that it might have made a difference in 2007, but it won’t in 2017.)

Our fixation on discovery and assembly also distracts us from other serious platform needs – like platforms for the collaborative development of OER and open assessments (assessments are the lifeblood of this new generation of platforms), where faculty and students can work together to create and update the core materials that support learning in our institutions. Our work in OER will never be truly sustainable until faculty and students jointly own this process, and that can’t happen until a new category of tools emerges that enables and supports this critical work. (Grant money for OER creation won’t last forever.)

And don’t even start trying to explain how the LMS is the answer. Just don’t.

Returning to the original essay from 2012… The Gates Foundation’s 2014 Next Generation Courseware Challenge grants provided funding for the kind of work described above, resulting in things like OpenStax Tutor and Lumen’s Waymaker. I’m particularly proud of what we’ve done (and continue to do) with Waymaker, but I also recognize that this problem won’t be solved with one round of grant funding and fewer than ten organizations participating. The conversation needs to be larger, the sense of urgency needs to be greater, and the vision and imagination of what’s possible needs to be far, far broader.

PDFs aren’t going to get us there. We need more efforts to provide the benefits of publishers’ “adaptive” systems while honoring and enabling the values of the OER community (e.g., the 5Rs and open pedagogy) and more support of these efforts.

The tl;dr is this: faculty (who make the decision about what resources will be used by students) love these systems, and with good reason – they can make things better for students and faculty alike. If the OER community doesn’t recognize that and start providing and promoting viable alternatives to publishers’ platforms, the best possible future for OER is being locked down inside a Pearson MyLab playing second fiddle to proprietary content. No 5Rs and no open pedagogy. See my notes on the recent MindTap ACE announcement for a “real world example.”


Thoughts on Cengage’s MindTap ACE

Cengage recently announced a new offering called MindTap ACE that includes OER and is now available in pilot. I haven’t had access to review the offering yet, but you can see some screenshots in the video linked above. The video clearly shows Cengage content listed for each topic, followed by some OER.

Michael Hansen, Cengage CEO, is quoted in the press release as saying:

“far too often, the debate is an either/or of achievement versus price, when the reality is that OER can complement proprietary content. MindTap ACE addresses this challenge by including OER alongside Cengage’s best-in-class content. The result is an affordable option that ensures students still benefit from a meaningful learning experience.”

This statement is masterful (if your goal is to suppress OER adoption). It subtly and repeatedly belittles open content, while still managing to make you feel happy about it’s inclusion in the ACE product. Hansen contrasts “achievement” (Cengage) with “price” (OER), allows that “Cengage’s best-in-class content” can be “complemented” by OER, and implies that an “affordable option” (OER) can still ensure a “meaningful learning experience” so long as it is paired with Cengage’s proprietary content.

The overall strategy is also masterful. MindTap ACE is an OER vaccine – it introduces OER into courseware in a manner specifically designed to inoculate faculty from contracting a full-blown OER adoption. It allows faculty to “check the OER box” while still paying for Cengage proprietary content. This is not the last OER vaccine we will see from a major publisher desperate to sell their content for a few more semesters.

(Even though I’m a vocal advocate for OER and disagree with what Cengage is trying to accomplish here, I’m still allowed to appreciate creative messaging and strategy when I see it.)

We will have to wait and see if MindTap ACE provides faculty or students with the technical capability to meaningfully exercise any of the 5R permissions that are literally the defining characteristic of OER. If the ability to change the order of chapters shown in the video is meant to check the revise box, my hopes aren’t high for retain, reuse, remix, or redistribute.

I want to say a word in praise of Cengage here. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Before we accuse Cengage of openwashing, it’s important to note that Cengage isn’t claiming to be “doing OER.” They’re not claiming to be “open” in some impoverished sense of the word. All they are claiming is that they are using OER to improve the affordability of their offering. And at $40, it appears that they’ve succeeded at that goal.

(It does make me wonder, though… How does adding content (in this case, OER) to a product reduce it’s price? The existing MindTap Introduction to Psychology wholesales to bookstores for $96. According to the press release, MindTap ACE Introduction to Psychology will cost $40. Is the OER that have been added to the product so inferior that they actually decrease the product’s value (by more than half)? I don’t think that’s what’s happening. The decrease in price only makes sense if OER are replacing content in the existing version of the course.

If it’s true that OER are replacing existing content, there’s trouble afoot. Either (a) MindTap ACE Introduction to Psychology will be substantially worse than the existing MindTap version because inferior OER have been used to replace Cengage’s “best-in-class” content, or (b) Cengage have unwittingly validated OER by replacing their own “best-in-class” content with OER to create a product that will be just as effective in supporting learning as the more expensive version. I wonder which Cengage would say is true – is MindTap ACE a case of “pay less, get less?,” or will Cengage vouch for the efficacy of MindTap ACE and, perhaps accidentally, OER?)

But coming back to the praise… Cengage does seem to have managed to avoid using “open” or “OER” in ways that are dishonest and offensive to the community, which is more than most other publishers have managed. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Perhaps if the OER community  welcomed small forays into OER territory on the part of publishers, they would find the courage to come more fully into the OER community. I know most of you (all of you?) think I’m crazy, but I dream of a future in which proprietary publishers actively contribute to OER the way that proprietary software companies contribute to open source software. If we encourage them and support them in acting within community norms and values, there’s a chance this might happen. If we bodyslam them every time they come within hearing distance of the word “open,” we won’t make much progress.

I’ve not been as effective at this in the past as I wish I had been and want to do better, so this post is a start.


Of Analogies, Learning, and Weather

E-literate recently ran a story about the emergence of a genuine science of learning. Keith Devlin follows many who came before him in making an analogy to medicine. Generally speaking, I don’t like comparisons of education to medicine. I think they’re problematic for a range of reasons I’ve written about in the past. But in the context of this article, the biggest problem with the comparison has to do with the role of data.

Educational technologies have worked their way into the everyday lives of millions of students, resulting in an explosion of learning-related data that could be analyzed by researchers. The logic of the argument is that the ease and scale of capturing these data will result in an unprecedented corpus of “big data” about learning whose analysis will rapidly drive new discoveries in learning science. Now, while medical instrumentation has made incredible advances in the past century, these instruments haven’t worked their way into the everyday lives of millions of people, resulting in a similar explosion of medical data available for analysis using “big data” techniques. (Data-obsessed athletes and quantified self advocates being the closest thing we have to an exception here.)

If we truly believe that the coming revolution in learning science will be enabled by the unprecedented levels of data collection enabled by pervasive educational technologies, perhaps the analogy to medicine is mistaken since medicine has never undergone a similar transformation. Perhaps we should look for another field where a technology-facilitated explosion of data drove progress forward. How about meteorology?

You can read Meteorology on Wikipedia for more detail, but I’ll summarize here. Weather is happening everywhere, all the time – the amount of potential data to capture is “big.” The development of reliable instruments and common classification scales led to a standardized way of collecting and talking about weather data. Data collection networks were then established to use these new instruments to systematically collect this data in a wide range of geographical contexts. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to bring massive amounts of this data together in a single location quickly. As the scale of these data grew, people began talking about numerical weather prediction, beginning with the 1904 paper “Weather Forecasting as a Problem in Mechanics and Physics.”

Any of this sounding familiar yet, educational technologists?

Maybe there would be some value in a closer evaluation of this analogy. Weather is a dynamical system, and so is learning. Both are highly sensitive to initial conditions (like a student’s prior knowledge). The study of each will always result in probabilistic forecasts rather than deterministic predictions.

Given the efforts pundits are making to persuade us that education is poised to enter a new golden age thanks to all the data that are now available, we’d do well to familiarize ourselves with relevant history. Who knows – maybe one day learning scientists will be as accurate at predicting learning as weathermen are at predicting the weather. While that may sound like a dig against both professions, I actually mean it simply as an acknowledgment of how incredibly complex and dynamic both phenomena are.

On reflection, the impact of learner agency on the learning process makes me doubt that we can ever be as good at predicting learning as we are at predicting weather. Still, I think there might be value in thinking about this analogy a little more.

What do you think? What other fields have seen rapid progress occur through a technology-facilitated explosion of data? What could we learn from them?