The Unruly Playground: Free OER and Paid Digital Materials

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Is the relationship between Open Educational Resources (OER) advocates and traditional educational publishing companies like a playground dominated by bullies? Or more like two groups of kids, ignoring each other as much as possible as they play?

If current activity is any indication, it’s a little of both--and neither. The industry is ready to play nicely with OER. But it doesn’t appear to know how.

That was the perspective expressed during the 2014 Content in Context conference, hosted by the Association of American Publishers preK-12 Learning Group in Washington, D.C. The opening keynote session was all about OER as seen from three viewpoints: the hands-on OER educator, the long-time education publishing executive, and the edtech company curriculum designer.

The first challenge? Defining it. Ask Google to define “OER” and you’ll get, “archaic or poetic/literary contraction for over.” But missing apostrophe aside, the accepted characteristics for digital Open Educational Resources are that they’re materials educators have the right to freely use, change, and share. Even if not everyone agrees on every nuance.

With foundations, non-profits, teachers and entire states piling on the OER creation-and-distribution teeter-totter, the playground may need more rules before someone gets hurt. Three hazards are clear.

“OER” is an imprecise term

OER can be anything from individual activities to full course materials, as the continuum represented by Khan Academy videos to CK-12 Foundation textbooks implies. Dan Caton, former president of Pearson Learning Group and McGraw-Hill School Education, and now president of Wittel/Morris Strategic Consulting, points out materials do vary widely in quality. “Some of them are really excellent,” he says. “Some of them are dreadful.”

Yet teachers don’t necessarily know--or care--if what they’ve grabbed over the weekend for Monday’s class is truly openly licensed content. Tom Woodward, former director of instructional technology with Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia (he’s now at Virginia Commonwealth University) finds educators in some cases can have a “more pragmatic” definition: “What can we get for free?”

Woodward, in his 13 years of working with OER, says not to forget that the Declaration of Independence may meet the criteria. OER, he says, “also includes everything from primary source material, with no educational context added … (to) content or tools that are wrapped in an educational context.” Photos on Flickr Commons, and digital museum artifacts all can be considered OER. “There’s a large continuum with lots of gray in between,” he explains.

There are little visible means of support

While OER creation is currently on the upswing, thanks to foundation funding and district-encouraged teacher efforts, a clear model for ongoing OER maintenance is still emerging. And that’s one reason education companies have been cautious about playing.

“There is an excellent business model and that is, ‘Find somebody rich and get money from them,’” quips Caton. “Otherwise, it’s not sustainable.” Dealing with student and teacher feedback requesting changes over time means ongoing expense.

Some examples of business models include offering teacher training and custom tools for a fee (OER Commons), institution-level subscriptions (HippoCampus), or careful packaged curation (netTrekker).

Another business model--if it can be called such--is districts creating (and, one would assume, updating) their own material with tax dollars and school labor. It’s happening, Woodward notes, under the guise of “staff development.” “I think it will increase in scale and sophistication in part because it tends to get to the granular aspects,” Woodward says, of providing chunks of content that can more easily be mixed-and-matched.

But none of these models apply yet to publisher-created open resources. That’s where, Caton suggests, a variation on the freemium model might work, or curated OER content might be offered as a benefit for purchasing digital core curriculum.

And will publishers ever release their own digital content, such as older materials, as OER? “A lot of that is a rights issue,” Caton observes. “Some of it is obstinateness, I think, in that it is still something that is owned. It is intellectual property that was developed at a great cost. Publishers continue to believe that’s something they need to be reimbursed for. But I think more and more we will see some of that contributed to the OER community, but it’s going to take some significant expense to get it ready for that, to overcome the rights issues, the author issues, the datedness.”

Platforms are lacking

Even if OER and digital paid content want to play nicely, getting onto the same playground can be a challenge--not just in combining paid-and-free content, but in combining one source of OER with another source of OER, or one company’s proprietary content with someone else’s proprietary content in a seamless, single platform.

Tim Hudson, senior director of curriculum design for the adaptive edtech firm DreamBox Learning and a former math teacher, says, “There would need to be a lot of technical and pedagogical things to be discussed” to make OER from different sources work well in an adaptive engine.

“Paid content and OER tend to be in these [platform] silos,” Woodward adds. “And if we move to totally digital content, it’s very difficult for a school system of any size to deal with a silo for each subject or each grade.”

That represents an opportunity, Woodward notes. “The sophistication of integration with these systems is where I think there’s a lot of value and possibility.”

So what’s the outlook for the corporate-community content relationship in five years?

Caton expects “a greater collaborative model between for-pay providers who are curating the best of the Open Educational Resources, but still charging districts for both that content and the training.”

DreamBox’s Hudson sees districts being able to combine paid resources and thoughtfully reviewed OER in a “closer partnership” to “create coherent learning pathways and progressions.”

And Woodward? The two will be “increasingly integrated with increasingly blurry lines driven by interrelated systems.”

In other words, the future of OER and paid content is an open field--as the playground fences begin to add gates, and potentially come down entirely.

Frank Catalano is an independent industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a contributor for EdSurge and columnist for the tech news site GeekWire, and tweets @FrankCatalano. He had the role of playground monitor as he moderated the session in a posted PowerPoint-free zone.

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