January Optimism about OER

Last year in March I did a lot of soul searching about my mission in the EdTech space. At the time, figuring out the incentives for authors and teachers to produce open educational resources (OER) seemed like an insurmountable mountain to climb. I didn’t see a clear path for interoperability between content sources. OER yes, but OER how?

Since then I’ve learned a lot more about the open content landscape and I’m starting to feel more optimistic about the prospects for OER. Could year 2018 be when the switch-over happens? I think so.

 

Tech Strategy for 2018

Below is a list of technology building blocks that will be half-built by Mar 2018 and fully built by Mar 2019. Together they represent the foundation for OER becoming a mainstream phenomenon.

Content library

One year from now, accessing all the CC-licensed educational material from the web will be a solved problem. When a school principal wants to setup a local OER server, they’ll be able to import educational content from a choice of multiple free content libraries. (Technical details such as the data format wget+zip, web archive, OpenZIM, cartridge, kchannel, etc. and the browsing and search interfaces can be solved by something like pandoc for OER content and listing syndication and indexing service integration.)

Editing tools

Given a global content channel like Khan Academy, a teacher might want to edit the content structure to: change folder titles and descriptions; reorder items within folders; cut, copy, and paste items; and add new items by adding files or creating them from scratch with the authoring tools.

Authoring tools

A lot of the OER content out there isn’t that good. If learning will happen on a new medium like a tablet, then it might be easier to start from scratch and produce new content adapted for tablets. We need more tools for educators, teachers, and students to produce learning activities.

Make some sushi and feed the kids for a day, or teach them how to make sushi on their own and feed them for life.

Diff tools

Since content channels are not static, we need to make an easy-to-use system for distributing and applying updates. The source channel that you imported has changed, do you want to update your local copy from the source channel? Click Yes or review changes by looking at diff between old content and new content: nodes added, nodes removed, nodes moved, nodes whose content was edited.

When looking at individual content items that consist mostly of text, there could be copyediting and typo correction tools. Any contributor could fix a typo in the description of a content item and submit a typo fix “pull request” upstream to the original content node owner (use word-level diffs git diff --color-words ... for showing text changes).

Standards alignment tool

Imagine an editing interface for manipulating educational standards and setting parallels. For example, let MATH.US and MATH.MX be the math education standards for the US and Mexico. We can setup links that say “Every content item tagged with MATH.US.tagP should be automatically tagged with MATH.MX.tagQ” and this rule can be applied whenever importing content. (i.e. do the standards alignment once up front, instead of doing it for every content item).

Student backpack (like in RPG games)

I’m generally against gamification techniques because I don’t see what’s the point of introducing metaphorical rewards like points and badges. However, if achievement rewards are related to the content matter then things could be very interesting.

What if badges were awarded when students pass some exam or “validation test” that confirms they know the concept inside out. You get the badge for X when you’ve completed all the tests required for X. For example the QEQN badge can be awarded whenever students have proved they know the formula x = (-b +/- sqrt(b^2-4ac))/(2*a) for obtaining the solution set to the equation  ax^2 + bx +c = 0.

When you unlock the QEQN badge, the “quadratic equation tool” will be available for all the problems you will solve in the future. By earning the QEQN badge you proved you know the rule x = (-b +/- sqrt(b^2-4ac))/(2*a) by doing all the exercises, therefore from now we’ll stop forcing you to do this calculation by hand and let you use the quadratic equation tool when solving problems (click view source to see how it works).

I’m not sure every skill can be turned into an applet, so we could instead give them a “knowledge scroll” as the achievement—a short document that summarizes the concept that students can use whenever they need to use an X-related formula. Another option would be to earn “effort” badges for investing a lot of time to read/practice.

 

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic and the OER revolution is still far away, but I don’t think so. Now that I know the good folks at LE are thinking about these problems, I feel free software for universal education is coming up soon! It will take a combination of vision, technical expertise, implementations experience, and partnerships to make this work. As we say in Bulgaria, “Сговорна дружина, планина повдига,” which roughly translates to “An organized group can lift a mountain.” If you’re interested in lifting some mountains with us, check out the LE jobs page.

Impression from NYC and the RC

Two months ago I was on a train going from Montreal to New York City. It’s a long ride, but I used the time on the train to triage all the coding project ideas I could work on while at the Recurse Center (RC). So many projects; so many ideas.

Today I’m on the same train heading back to Montreal and have another 10 hours to triage the thoughts, experiences, and observations about the big city and the social experiment that is RC. Here is my best shot at it—stream-of-consciousness-style—before I forget it all.

New York City

The past two months have all been a blur. From the day of arrival when I tried to enter the wrong apartment, to the first contact with NYC street noise insanity outside of my window, to the snow storm, and all sorts of good foods. I’m very impressed with the city, but I’m not in love. Here are my observations.

New York is a big city. Compared to Montreal, it’s as if someone copy-pasted 10x the city. Or perhaps the better computer analogy is someone filling a map with the “bucket-fill” tool and completely forgetting to stop. Seriously, it seems like there is waaaay too much shopping areas with high-fashion and luxury brands. Do people really need to do so much shopping? I don’t mean to be judgmental, but as someone who is ideologically against consumerism, I felt like I was totally in the wrong place.

The energy of the city is amazing. It seems everyone is getting things done, shipping products, or otherwise being creatively on top of their game. Now I realize it is impossible for everyone to be successful, but people certainly carry themselves as if they’re crushing it. Most people I talked to made a good impression on me. They’re proud of what they do, confident, but not overly full of themselves. New Yorkers are actually interested in hearing you out, and seeing what you have to say. I felt very little closed-mindedness and little-mindedness from the locals, which is great.

I really like the demographics of the city. Everywhere I went, there are young people: from school kids who talk like adults, to the well-represented university crowd, through the numerous artists, to the middle-aged professionals contingent, and also older people who still keep in shape. Everyone is well dressed and good looking. At times I felt as if there is some sort of giant “face control” department at NYC ports and train stations that does not allow non-good-looking people to come to the city (How did I get in?).

I’m used to “measuring my words” when meeting new people in order not to alienate my interlocutors by mentioning math, quantum physics, or computer topics. When touching on such topics, I use an interactive approach to “feel out” the level of comfort of the person I’m talking with and judge how far I can go with this topic of conversation. The last thing you want is to jabber endlessly about a technical topic to someone not interested in tech, or to talk about math with a person who has a math phobia. Talking with people in NYC, I was pleasantly surprised to realize I don’t need to measure my words all that much. I would hit people with the full geekfest, computer jargon, and even quantum topics and they would handle it just fine. People are more knowledgeable than you think, and those that don’t know anything about the subject matter are willing to go into it and still had interesting things to say. That’s really nice. It’s great to be around people who can handle the tech talk and the science talk. All the New Yorkers I spoke with are smart, open minded, and generally well aware of the world.

The New York lifestyle is definitely something I could get used to. Two months of living there is not enough to get used to it or see enough of it to be a judge, but I met enough locals and saw enough to get a general feeling for what it’s like. First you need a NYC job. That’s a key thing if you are to enjoy the \$8 pints, \$15 cocktails, and \$30+ entrees. I mean anyone can afford to eat out once in a while, but if you’re not making 100K+ in this city, you’ll have a lot less opportunity to enjoy all the restaurants and bars. All these places of socialization are waiting for you after work. Unlike the dwellers of most North American cities, New Yorkers tend to go out after work. Whether it’s for a fancy dinner, or a quick dinner, or for straight-up alcoholism activities, people don’t want to go home. The city is very European in that way. You get to talk to people, see your friends, and generally hang out rather than go home. I like that very much.

The noise though. Oh. My. Fuckin’. God. The noise is terrible. It seems like every person who brings a car into Manhattan wants to exercise their right to use the klaxon as much as possible. Seriously, if the street is jam-packed for hundreds of meters ahead of you, will honking really make a difference? It’s not just the honking though, the constant presence of people at all hours with their need to scream, the large open spaces that carry sound, the delivery trucks, the construction work, the garbage collection trucks, and the highways. I am generally not affected by noise, but I never thought it can be this intense. In fact, I read that some people can get used to the noise level and need it for creative stimulation.

But it’s not just New Yorkers in cars that like to signal. Everyone in NYC is big on signalling. There are a lot of expensive bars and restaurants where the locals can feel special because of the hefty bills they will pay, but I guess it’s like that everywhere around the world. The specific signals New Yorkers use to show their higher status relate to the most difficult things to have in the city: cars and dogs. Owning a car in Manhattan must be an absolute nightmare with all the traffic and how difficult it must be to find parking. For this reason, if you’re seen rolling down the street in a fancy convertible, then you really must be something special. It’s a bit like high-heels—they’re attractive because they’re totally impractical. It seems it’s the same with owning a dog in NYC. We’re talking about a stone and concrete jungle with very little green areas. Why do you have a dog? Where are you going to take it out for a walk? Still, if you own a dog in these difficult conditions, then you must represent. Anyway, human nature is weird.

The Recurse Center

My six weeks at the Recurse Center were very much what I expected them to be, but also very surprising and inspirational at the same time. I kind of knew what to expect when going into RC from talking with people who’ve attended: RC is a shared office space with a focus on coding projects and exploration. This description is accurate, but completely fails to account for the amazing people that are present in that shared office space. Imagine co-workers that you actually want to talk to? How cool is that?

I’m in total awe with the people that I met. There were extremely knowledgeable people with very interesting background and achievements, but also inspiring “junior” people with insane ability to learn quickly. We had people who know how to use nearly every imaginable programming language: Agda, Clojure, Coq, C, C++, Erlang, Go, Java, JavaScript, PROLOG, Python, and even COBOL. How often would you have access to  such variety of people and be able to ask questions of them, or just “Hello Joe, can you give me an intro to PROLOG?”

I definitely felt some impostor syndrome after meeting all the people and hearing about the projects they were working on, but then I stopped comparing myself to everyone and it was OK after that.

The main idea for the Recurse Center is to provide the learning environment but not impose any structure. The first day has a lot of “official” events organized with the goal of getting people to know each other, but apart from that we’re left pretty much on our own to figure out what we want to do. People organize events, form reading groups, and work on projects in pairs or larger groups.

The first week was a bit strange and anti-social. I would show up in the early morning and work on some coding projects, try to socialize over lunch, then back to more coding in the afternoon, then go home. No beer or after-work pub activity. I think the people in the Spring 1 batch were realizing they are halfway done with their batch and trying to be more productive and the new Spring 2 people were not going to suddenly start talking to each other and making friends. Everyone felt distant, busy, and not wanting to be disturbed until the first Thursday game night. This evening was a marked change, at least for me, since after a few beers I felt much more comfortable talking with people. Beer is the universal ice breaker. After this first social event, I felt much more comfortable talking to people, joining conversations, and generally interacting with people. As if somehow drinking a few beers in the same room had turned us from coworkers into buddies.

Throughout my time at RC there was a constant tension between working on projects and socializing. My original plan was to push forward on one project, or another, until it is in a shape where it can be shown and shared with others. Needless to say this never happened, since “cleaning up” the projects and getting them into “not ashamed of the code” state was too much work, and would have required much more time than a half-batch. Once I realized this, I said “fuck my projects” and decided to focus more on talking to people, sometimes helping with whatever they’re working on, sometimes teaching math, doing Django demos, explaining pointers in C, and generally trying to be useful as a teacher. At the same time I played the student role in several other contexts where people more knowledgeable than me introduced me to PROLOG, Neural Networks, and Formal Type systems.

Something that I realized near the end of the batch is that RC puts a lot of emphasis on not imposing any formal structure to the learning process. There are no instructors. There are no classes. There is no set curriculum for people to follow.

Not adhering to any strict procedure, formula, method, or curriculum is a very powerful idea. It makes me think of Alfred N. Whitehead’s essay titled The Aims of Education in which he warns about the danger of inert ideas. Every now and then powerful new ideas and ways of thinking erupt on the intellectual scene and overturn old and established ideas. Slowly over time the new ideas become codified and structured until they become the new dogma. Whitehead warns us that the seemingly “efficient” approaches where students are taught to “skip ahead” and directly memorize useful facts might not be the best way forward if we want truly developed learners. Instead of memorizing thousands of facts, Whitehead advocates exposing students to a few important ideas and letting them apply these ideas in various practical scenarios.

I find RC’s structure-less approach very interesting because it is diametrically opposite to my thinking about education. The power of this unstructured approach is that it will never degenerate into dogma, rote learning, or formulaic explanations. By sticking to meta-learning techniques like study groups, reading groups, pair programming, weekly meetings, and activities, RCs learning will stay evergreen. I imagine the the 2014 web study group were about Backbone.js and the 2017 it’s all about React.js. RC never becomes outdated.

At the same time I believe that some structure could be very useful for beginners. How much time was wasted by each person to setup their basic coding environment? How much time is wasted learning from the wrong source? How can beginners know which tutorial is good and which tutorial is bad? The whole assumption of putting learners in charge of their learning process assumes that learners are adults and have well-developed meta-cognitive skills. It just so happens that all the people at RC are very smart and capable of “taking ownership” of their learning process so it works out, but I’m still left thinking that some structure could be introduced into RC without losing the flexibility.

 

Possible improvements

I thought of a number of ideas which would have made my experience better at RC and which could benefit people who are learning to code in general.

  • More short-term, throwaway code projects. I think I wasted a lot of time thinking of the projects that are good, worthwhile, or of general interest. I felt I need to come up with a really good idea for a coding project if I’m going to invite others to collaborate with me. From what I heard around me, many people were working on quite serious, long-term projects (think three week-long projects, or six-week long reading group). Those are cool and you’ll learn a lot in the end, but I think short, throwaway projects are much more valuable for learning. I had a lot of fun working on half-day projects in collaboration with people. If I come back to RC, I would focus 70% on such projects: get technology A to work, install B on top of C, wrap D inside and E environment, write a hello world in F then package your code and make it run in the G cloud. All of these activities would take an expert 30 minutes to do. A solo beginner would take 5-12 hours, and a team of beginners 3-5 hours. All the boring scary parts of getting things off the ground are so much better when you’re working in a team.
  • At the same time I think it’s good for everyone at RC to have one long term “show off” project to work on, dig in, and become sort of expert at. This could also be a collaborative project, it doesn’t need to be a “my portfolio” project, but I think it’s important for everyone to learn how to polish the code beyond the “school project” level. It would be great to have the full end-to-end experience from idea, design, implementation, coding enough to make the app useful to end users, deploy the code in a production environment, writing tests, etc. It doesn’t make sense to do all these extra steps for each of the throwaway projects, but it totally makes sense to go through the motions at least once for one project.
  • Code reviews. We had a great conversation over lunch with A., B., and N. where we all agreed that we somehow need to introduce the notion of code reviews and collaboration best practices (releases, feature branches, pull requests). It doesn’t make sense to do code review on the throwaway projects, but I think everyone would benefit from code review on their “show off” project. Imagine pairing a Python beginner and a Python expert on a simple web app project. Using only one hour per week of productive time, the Python expert could transfer all the best practices about conventions, code organization, idiomatic Python, testing tools, and deployment to the beginner.
  • Starter tutorials and curated learning resources. This is basically what I was working on throughout most of my batch. Imagine a collection of links to learning resources about every imaginable computer-related topic and each topic comes with a short tutorial prepared by a recurser that gives you the “hello world” introduction to the topic. I think this sort of curated list of links to resources, if continuously updated, can really improve the life of beginners. Instead of trusting “uncle google” to find the most relevant tutorial on topic X, you can go to a trusted source and get started learning topic X without the fear you’re missing out on some better tutorial somewhere else. Perhaps the page on topic X could use the Socratic method and just ask questions? For example, the page on JavaScript could ask: What is this? What is a prototype? What is the difference between == and ===? And other questions that will lead learners to seek answers on their own.

I think the above four ideas would really improve the RC experience for future attendees. I personally feel I wasted a lot of time in the first weeks thinking of a grandiose project to work on, and in retrospective I wish I had worked on smaller half-day, or one-day projects to learn as much as possible. I think mini-projects lend themselves better to collaboration. Imagine someone asks you to collaborate on a week-long project to do some big thing, versus someone asks you to collaborate on a small toy project for half a day?

Conclusion

Overall my stay at RC and in NYC was a good experience. I learned a lot. I got out of my Montreal routine/bubble. Above all, I met some amazing people. Fuck computers and coding resources… people are the best resource of them all! Many thanks to the RC Staff, Spring 1 and 2 batchmates, and all the alumni. Hope to see y’all again.

No bullshit linear algebra v2 release

The NO BULLSHIT guide to LINEAR ALGEBRA is finally ready. After two years of writing and two years of editing, the book is now complete! Thanks to all the feedback from readers and the amazing attention to detail of my editor Sandy Gordon, the first print release is very polished.

No bullshit guide to linear algebra product shot

Can I see a preview?

I’ve posted an extended preview of the book here (160 pages, PDF) so you can get a feel of what’s included. I tried to make the preview useful on its own: rather than showing only a few pages from the introduction, I’ve included the definitions from all the sections, which are the most important part of the book.

If you’re not interested in reading a whole book, but just want to see the graphical representation of all the linear algebra topics, I encourage you to check the concept maps here. If you’re looking for a quick refresher on linear algebra concepts, you can check the four-page linear algebra summary here.

 

Why should I learn linear algebra?

Linear algebra is the foundation of science and engineering. Knowledge of linear algebra is a prerequisite for studying statistics, machine learning, computer graphics, signal processing, chemistry, economics, and quantum mechanics. Indeed, linear algebra offers a powerful toolbox for modelling the real world. All areas of advanced science and engineering make use of linear algebra models in one way or another. So essentially, you need to learn linear algebra if you want to do science.

 

Why do I need this book?

There are many great books about linear algebra that exist out there[1,2,3]. The NO BULLSHIT guide to LINEAR ALGEBRA is special because of the concise, conversational tone it is written in, the prerequisites material it includes, and the numerous exciting applications of linear algebra it discusses. This book is the result of  years of private tutoring, which makes the narrative feel much more like a conversation with a friend rather than a stuffy lecture. I know from experience that many adults don’t remember basic math topics like algebra, functions, and equations, so the book includes a comprehensive review chapter (Chapter 1) to make sure everyone is on board with the fundamentals.

The “main course” of the book (Chapters 2 through 6) consists of all the standard material covered in linear algebra courses with lots of examples, exercises, and practice problems with solutions.

The book concludes with three “dessert” chapters that discuss applications of linear algebra. We start with applications to chemistry, economics, electrical engineering, graph theory, numerical optimization, cryptography, and signal processing (Chapter 7). Next we followup with a chapter on probability theory, Markov chains, and an exploration of Google’s PageRank algorithm (Chapter 8). The book concludes with a chapter that introduces the fundamental ideas of quantum mechanics and quantum computing (Chapter 9). Many of the topics covered in chapters 7, 8, and 9 are considered “advanced” or “graduate level,” but readers of the book who’ve gained a solid grasp of linear algebra concepts will be able to learn about these exciting applications with no problem at all.

 

Where can I buy this book?

It depends on what you want. The eBook version costs $29 and is a pretty sweet deal since it comes with all future updates. But if you really want to learn the material, you should get the softcover print version, which is much better for focused learning, and costs about the same: \$39 – 20% off = \$31. If money isn’t a constraint for you right now, you should get the hardcover, which is printed on larger paper and has a construction that will last for decades.

Regardless of your choice of medium, you’ll be getting the same high quality book that will introduce you to the wonderful subject of linear algebra in the least intimidating way possible.

The textbook business

This is a followup on my previous post about the challenges of open educational resources (OER) production and adoption. I’ve come to the conclusion that the key aspect holding back the “OER dream” is not the lack of collaboration tools or the ability for teachers to discover material, but the quality of the content. You can’t write a textbook by committee. It’s as simple as that!

I wish collectives of qualified authors/teachers could come together to create the free textbooks and other educational material, but it seems human nature doesn’t work this way, and it’s very difficult for multiple authors to “sync” their thoughts together and come up with a coherent narrative for book-length projects.

The key to the production of quality educational content is to set the right incentives for knowledgeable authors to write. I’m thinking graduate students writing tutorials, blog posts, HOWTOs, books, and generally living from the proceeds of their work. Rather than wishful thinking about “collaborative projects” where multiple authors come together to write a book, why don’t we focus on single-author textbooks? Rather than a “commons” approach where nobody owns the project, let’s have a single author “own” the project and make them personally involved with its success. I believe the monetary incentives will be enough to make the author invest the time needed to make the book/project/resource a success.

It’s possible to replicate, and generalize the business model I used with the MATH&PHYS, and LA books with experts in other fields: chemistry, biology, economics, psychology, history, etc. If a young person (think an M.Sc. or a Ph.D. student) with practical and teaching experience in a particular subject writes books, I can guarantee the book will be a success.

 

Business model

The beautify of the matter is we don’t need to invent anything new. We’ll use a very traditional business model, where we sell products to make cash. The authors will make a significant profit from each copy of the book sold, and will thus be incentivized to produce quality content that sells.

The publisher (Minireference Co.) will also make profits from the book sales and be able to fund software development, marketing efforts, author advances, and generally take care of the business overhead for running operations. The main innovation of this business model is that, rather than the publisher being in an exploitative relationship with the author, they are equal partners. Rather than authors making 10% royalties, at Minireference Co. authors earn 50% royalties. The publishers takes care of the boring stuff and allows the authors to focus on the hard task—writing, polishing, and curating the content. Equal partners, with parts of the proceeds.

The market(s)

The main audience for the textbooks will be students, but students in the broadest sense of the term. We’re talking advanced-level high school students,  university students, parents, and adult learners. By setting a price point for the products around $29 to $39, we’ll make sure the books are affordable for everyone, but also make enough money to sustain the authors so they can keep producing more books.

 

Okay, so where is the OER in all of this?

By now, my dear readers, you might be wondering if there is no case of “bate and switch” going on here. We started with the promise/mission to make open educational resources more accessible to students and adult learners around the world, and somehow we ended-up with a reaffirmation of a business plan to make money from selling books. Perhaps there is some of this going on, but you must agree that building stable organizations with individuals who earn a living by teaching is a step in the right direction.

The approach that I imagine for getting achieving the “OER dream” is to encourage authors to sell their university-level books, but contribute primary and high school material as OER. I think the “university for money, but high schools stuff for free” approach will work for two reasons. Some authors might start from an altruistic point of view, and want to do something good for society by releasing some introductory lessons for free. Other authors might be motivated by purely capitalistic incentives, since releasing the high school material for free is an excellent way to promote their work.

 

Focus, focus, focus

There’s only a limited things one person can do in their lifetime so it’s important to focus on the things that make sense, and which have potential for growth and high impact. I’ve invested the past 5+ years of my life in the math textbook business so I think it’s important to continue that project instead of changing priorities or working on other projects.

The beauty of this idea is that it doesn’t require any miracles, breakthroughs, or external funding. All it takes is an evolution of the project I have currently going on, so I can work with more authors. Life always tends to make things more complicated over time, so starting with a simple plan, and keeping the focus is generally a good way forward. Vamolos; ándale!

The state of open educational resources in 2017

I spend the last couple of weeks exploring the open educational resources (OER) landscape and wanted to write down my thoughts and observations about the field. The promise of an OER “revolution” that will put quality learning material into the hands of every student has been around for several decades, but we are yet to see OER displace the established publishers. Why is it that “open content” hasn’t taken off more, and what can we do to make things happen in the coming decade?

It’s easy to become over-optimistic about the possibilities afforded by new technologies in the educational space. It’s important to keep in mind the tremendous friction associated with adopting new tech and new ways of teaching and breaking into the established educational practices.  Let’s “aim low” and set realistic targets that can easily be achieved, even in the face of resistance from current stakeholders in the system. What is the common core of useful tools and practices that everyone can agree on that we can achieve in the next three to five years?

 

Why?

Improving access to education is a win-win for everyone. In fact, education is so important that it doesn’t make sense to have commercial interests mixed in with the production of educational content. Whenever possible, students, teachers, and schools need to be in active control of the content, rather than being passive consumers.

The ability to continuously update and improve the content will lead to higher-quality content in the long term. That is, of course, assuming the barriers to collaboration are sufficiently low to allow for productive collaboration to occur.

 

What?

There are two distinct categories of educational materials we can identify.

  • Content: text, exercises, images, videos, audio files, simulations, interactive demonstrations, links
  • Structure: curriculum, course plan, lecture plan, prerequisite structure, and topic guides

Existing OER efforts [1,2,3] are predominantly focused on the production of content items, but there are also recent efforts that provide entire curriculum including course structure, lesson plans, exercises, etc. The common core state standards for math provide an overall structure so that content from different sources can be used interchangeably. In general, it’s not clear that content from different OER sources can be easily remixed and combined.

 

Who?

Let’s review the main players in the “education space” and point out the roles they play.

  • School boards administrators oversee the operations of the “education machine” and are most interested in quantifiable results and metrics. They are interested in new technology and resources that will improve educational outcomes, but would be very slow to act, because of the red tape involved in large administrations.
  • School administrators operate under a lot of financial pressure and school board administrators breathing down their neck. They must also balance parents’ demands, keep their teachers happy, and make sure “operations” continue smoothly.
  • Teachers are the foot soldiers. They are faced with the daily tasks of keeping students learning, policing the classroom, and surviving on a limited teacher salary. They are usually not very technologically savvy, an won’t instantly adopt new tools, unless they can clearly see the benefits.
  • Students are the patients in the system. The whole point of the system is to support the students learning process, but they are given very little choice, and have very little control of their learning.
  • Parents often want to get involved in their kids education. Some parents have the ability to help their kids, others less. Some parents are willing to get involved in school projects and contribute their time.
  • Content producers like book authors, editors, and publishers are responsible for getting “educational products” shipped. From textbooks, to exams, to exam prep courses. The old players in the game (textbook publishers, educational content providers, exam sellers) are large organizations that make their profits through large deals with governments and school boards. The actual content authors are not necessarily concerned with the quality of the content they produce, and are often far removed from classrooms.
  • Technologists working in EdTech startups hope that bringing technology into classrooms will improve learning outcomes. The profit motive leads to a lot of technological innovation, but selling products and content to schools is notoriously hard so very few EdTech startups have made it big.
  • Governments usually want what is best for the population, but they are so far removed from the action that they are unlikely to know the best direction to move in. They are also likely to be lobbied by special interest groups.
  • Private donors often fund educational initiatives and non-profits. These people have their heart in the right place and want to encourage new efforts to improve the status quo. The ad-hoc nature of their efforts can often lead to duplication of effort.

Observe that the “main actors” in the educational system—students and teachers—are only a small part of this entire pipeline, and have very little say about how things are organized. The need to standardize the educational system has taken away the power from the teacher, and the need for one-size-fits all education removes student’s joy of learning. This sucks.

 

How can we fix this?

Who will build the educational system of the future? What will it look like? How can we put teachers in control of the educational content? How can we make students take ownership of their learning? These are important questions whose answers are far from simple, or obvious. The best I can do at this point is point out some high-level themes and directions that I believe could lead to useful results.

  • Better textbooks. I’m totally biased about this topic, but I think learning any subject benefits tremendously from following a structured sequence of lessons—something like a book. I’m talking about printed books, but it’s possible in the future the book will evolve to new formats. Regardless of the medium, the key benefit of the book-like “main text” is to lead the student through a path and, like a story, with a beginning, a main part, and an end.
  • Better support materials. Video lessons, exercises, images, demonstrations, and other “bonus material” are excellent for reinforcing the material students will be learning. It’s totally up to the student to pursue the subject at any depth they choose.
  • Project based learning. Instead of being passive “receivers” of information, students can work on personal projects related to to the subjects they’re supposed to be learning. Such projects will help them become autonomous learners.
  • Better authoring and collaboration tools. If we want the vision of quality OER produced by the community to become a reality, we need to build the best tools possible for authors to collaborate. Teachers must be able to submit typos and fixes. The best place to store educational content is github. Github and the pull request model is a proven technology. Perhaps a domain-specific layer on top of github could make things simpler for authors?
  • Incentives for authors. This is the hard one. Why would a teacher or author dedicate hours of their busy life to create or improve OER content? The situation is different from software, where people make contributions to fix bugs and solve their own problems. It’s comparatively more work for someone who wants to use the book to customize or edit a book. And if they edit it, what are the incentives to contribute back? And for the main author who receives contributions, why would they incorporate them?
  • Free software that runs on school premises through which students can access educational content. If it the “OER platform” is sufficiently easy to use, then school administrators will have to put in only one new system, which will act as conduit for all OER, and other resources. If a single “school server” system authentication, authorization, and student data, then this will greatly simplify things. The fact that it’s free should make it very competitive with commercial offerings.
  • Converter between different OER formats. It’s clear that every OER repository out there has useful content, but how can we use a mix of content from different sources? We need something like pandoc for OER.

I hope that the open source model will prevail and OER will be adopted as the predominant source of educational material in the future. I think putting the content authoring and editing tools in the hands of teachers, parents, and students is the important focus point that will enable all the rest. Paraphrasing the lyrics of Rage Against The Machine, it’s not about books, but about the machines for producing them.

 

Obstacles to OER adoption

The reason why OER are not used most often are as follows:

  • Content quality. Many people thing OER resources are of inferior quality compared to commercial materials. Certainly OER has “high variance” with some content being good and some being bad. In general, whenever OER content tries to reproduce the pedagogical approach of mainstream textbooks (teaching procedures instead of explaining and focus on repetition), the OER will be as low quality as the mainstream material.
  • There is a perception of insufficient resources. It’s possible to find 70% of what you would want to for your class, but be missing the 30%, which makes it impossible to use the material.
  • The resources are difficult to find. There are OER search engines and many repositories, but it remains that every teacher who wishes to adopt OER for their course must invest lots of time to find resources. This could be improved, with ready-made course packs and prepared/curated lists, but it will require lots of work, and constant updates.
  • Switching costs. The OER model is new so teachers and administrators are not used to it.
    • Lack of “vendor” to buy from, and ask for support.
    • How does CC licensing work?
    • Will there be updates and corrections?
  • There is no common format to allow mixing OER from different sources.

 

Next steps

I’ve come to the realization that getting quality OER into the hands of kids around the world is a much bigger task that I previously thought. It’s not like people who worked in the field before were stupid and didn’t use the right approach. It’s just really hard! The obstacles are not only technological, but also social, and psychological. Is multi-author collaboration on textbooks even possible? Every author has their own voice and approach, so it’s not guaranteed their “voices” can merge without outstanding amount of coordination.

When faced with big challenges, the best strategy is to “bite off” small pieces. For the coming weeks, I’ll focus on the “typo fixes” workflow, and write a prototype for anonymous readers to contribute fixes to an existing text. Let’s see if it is possible to hide the complexity of git, while at the same time keep the power of github pull requests. Easy does it. One step at a time.

 

References

[1] http://www.ck12.org/

[2] https://openstax.org/

[3] https://www.khanacademy.org/