Op-ed: If OER is the answer, what is the question?
With state legislation and foundation funding encouraging their use, Open Education Resources, or OER, are a big buzz in higher education, mostly in the context of the improving affordability. Increasingly, however, supporters of OER are touting additional benefits like flexibility and ease of use, suggesting that there is a broader set of questions educators are looking to answer beyond lowering the cost of course materials. What are those questions? How well does OER answer them? Here are some observations:
How do we deliver better learning experiences to more students?
There are fantastic learning resources out there of all breeds bringing different types of value to the learning process. OER often shine in their variety and ability to deepen resources for niche topics. Where proprietary courseware (textbooks, etextbooks, or online courseware) stand apart is in pedagogical organization and the unique value of authorship. While it’s possible to build a complete course from OER, the finished product often lacks the scaffolding found in courseware authored by single author/editorial/product teams. That scaffolding connects concepts and practice together, guiding students through the content in a way that maximizes learning. Can an instructional design-minded instructor provide that missing connective tissue? Absolutely. But how many have the time and motivation to do so? The amount of work required to do it well is one of the major reasons those who can and want to do it also want to be fairly compensated for it. Best-selling authors consistently deliver high quality, engaging learning experiences that their audience recognizes and seeks out. They do this through complete pedagogical systems that support the educator and learner better than others do, and that’s tough to replicate.
How do we get the most current, updated content when we want it?
When it comes to revising and remixing content, OER hold some advantages over the traditional textbook revision cycle. The ability to customize for a specific region or update to reflect recent world events is very academically appealing and can yield more relevant, up-to-the minute content. But who ultimately owns the responsibility for updating and refreshing content? Is it up to each individual instructor? Would department heads be responsible for making the call? How would the quality of these updates be assured? In research intensive disciplines, who is responsible for completing ongoing literature reviews, distilling the best new research, and updating course materials? Who maintains working problem sets over time for disciplines requiring them? And what is the incentive to keep the cycle going? There are some intrepid instructors who would eagerly take this on, but when you consider the implications for content updates at scale, demand can far outstretch capacity. Without clear responsibilities, incentives, quality controls, and a repeatable process for managing content updates, there are substantial costs imposed upon the user of OER for its upkeep.
How can we drive down costs for students and for institutions?
This seems to be the most likely question that OER seek to answer. And underpinning this is the presumption that “open” means “free.” But as mentioned above, there are significant costs imposed on both the learner (e.g., pedagogical inconsistency) and the instructor (e.g., material curation and upkeep). And, who is responsible for ensuring ADA compliance of OER? How are necessary integrations with student information and learning management systems supported? Who provides technical support to learners and faculty when needed? There is no free lunch, and most OER proponents understand that. That’s why businesses are beginning to sell services around OER, perhaps in anticipation of the day when the foundation, government, and venture capital funding that has kept OER afloat begins to dry up.
OER are a great way to enrich and personalize instruction alongside core instructional resources. But the hidden costs of OER make them a dubious replacement for primary course material, unlikely to deliver substantial savings over proprietary digital solutions in the long run. Low-cost OER make great supplements, but there is real value in core instructional content presented systematically and updated regularly by invested authors. Today’s highest-quality, most in-demand proprietary content is the product of an ecosystem that recognizes and rewards that value. That isn’t likely to change in the future.
One good thing about the OER buzz is that it has opened up the conversation about the cost of course materials and our collective responsibility for improving college affordability. We’ll just have to be careful that we’re not sacrificing the quality of the learning experience in the pursuit of lower cost.