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.

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.

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.

Git for authors

Using version control is very useful for storing text documents like papers and books. It’s amazing how easy it is to track changes to documents, and communicate these changes with other authors. In my career as a researcher, I’ve had the chance to initiate many colleagues to the use of mercurial and git for storing paper manuscripts. Also, when working on my math books, I’ve had the fortune to work with an editor who understands version control and performed her edits directly to the books’ source repo. This blog post is a brainstorming session on the what a git user interface specific to author’s needs could look like.

The other day I was onboarding a new author and had a chance to explain to him the basics of git, and I realized how complicated the action verbs are. To save some work, you need to put files in the staging area using git add <filename>, commit the change to the local repo, then push the changes to the remote repo. These commands, and the corresponding commands for pulling changes from the remote repo to your local one, and updating your working directory from the local repo, are very logical after you get used to them, and represent necessary complexity. The diagram below illustrates well the different git verbs newcomers to git need to get used to.

(Credit: Kieran Healy‘s excellent guide to git)

So what would git for authors look like?

It’s my non-expert opinion that this is too much complexity for the average non-technical person. Imagine a teacher who wants to use an OER textbook with her students, and in the process of producing the document for her class she finds some typos, which she wants to contribute back to the OER textbook project. Let’s do a thought experiment and imagine a humane interface that would make sense for this task. To make the thought experiment more concrete, we’ll personify the teacher as Jane,  a university professor who is in charge of a first-year physics class.

We’ll assume github is used as the storage backend, but most of author’s OER browsing,  and collaboration happens on a different site (say ezOER.com) whose users are authors, teachers, students, and parents. Suppose the OER book that Jane wants to use is College Phyisics by OpenStax, and this book is available in “source” format from the github repo openstax/physics, which we’ll refer to as upstream below. Given this preexisting setup, here are the steps the teacher would use:

1. Login to ezOER.com
2. Copy openstax/physics  to janesmith/physicsbook  (note we don’t say “fork” because it has different connotation as to the permanence and authority of the repo)
3. Clone janesmith/physicsbook to her ~/Documents/School/Textbooks/OpenStaxPhysics
4. Follow instructions for “building” the book locally. (e.g. running pdflatex three times)
5. Performs customization like:
1. Change cover page
2. Remove chapters she doesn’t plan on covering in her class
3. Add a custom preface with references specific to her class
4. Choose values for “configuration variables” like font size, paper size, etc.
6. Generate custom book for her class (PDF for print, PDF for screen, .epub, and .mobi)

At this point, she can distribute the eBooks to her students using her school’s LMS’ “file uploads” feature and setup the print PDF for print-on-demand using lulu.com, so students will be able to order the book in print. Her students will benefit from a world-class textbook for \$20-30 when printed as a two-tome softcover, black-and-white print book. No payment or further engagement with ezOER.com would be required.

If she doesn’t like her school’s LMS system she could “host” her custom book on ezOER.com. These are the steps she would take to publish her changes to her public-copy repository ezOER.com/janesmith/physicsbook:

1. git save: combines the effect of git add and git commit using a two-prompt wizard
2. git publish

She could now give the links to the “build” directory of ezOER.com/janesmith/physicsbook.

Now suppose that halfway through the course, she finds some typos in Chapter 2 of the book, which she wants to correct, and furthermore she wants to share her corrections with the “upstream” copy of the textbook. (Bear with me with this scenario, we’ll have to think more about good incentives to share your corrections with others, but for the purpose of this thought experiment let’s assume Jane is feeling altruistic today). These are the commands she’ll have to use to “suggest edits” to the upstream authors who manage openstax/physics:

1. Make the corrections in her working directory
2. git save
3. git publish (to her copy)
4. git suggestedits which pops up a wizard asking her to give a short label for her edit suggestions, and pick the commits that should be part of the “suggested edit” (a pull request behind the scenes). The suggestedits command will perform the following steps behind the scenes.
git checkout -b typoFixesChapter2
git rebase -i   (choosing only corrections commits, and not the customization commits)
– open github pull request

To keep things simple, Jane will never be shown the typoFixesChapter2 branch, and for all intents and purposes the rest of the workflow will be done entirely through the ezOER.com web interface. For example, if the upstream maintainers wants her to change something in her “suggested edits” (pull request), she’ll have to make these changes through the web interface, rather than edit the branch typoFixesChapter2 and push again. For all intents and purposes, Jane is always working on the master branch of her copy of the book.

I think introducing the new verbs save, publish, and suggestedits would be easier to use and correspond more closely to authors’ needs.

More power tools for authors

Assuming the source format is text based, git’s basic diff functionality will prove to be useful for “watching” changes made to large collections of text.  If the source is LaTeX documents, ezOER could run latex-diff to generate diff documents showing “rendered” differences between revisions, also know as red-blue diffs.

The build process could be automated using a generic continuous integration server. A script could run after each commit to regenerate the book in various PDF and eBook formats, and also generate diffs. We could even have some “language checks” scripts, that act like linters for text.

I’ve thought about this previously, but now the “authoring workflow” is becoming clearer. I need something like this for managing Minireference Co.’s (closed-source) content, but I plan to build all the tooling as open source. Would love to hear you feedback about this idea in the comments below.