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?
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.
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.
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.
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.