Of OER and Platforms: Five Years Later

Opinion | Higher Education

Of OER and Platforms: Five Years Later

By David Wiley     Jan 26, 2017

Of OER and Platforms: Five Years Later

This material was created by David Wiley and you can download, edit and share it for free under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license from the original post on his blog.

Five years ago, in an essay called “2017: RIP OER?” I pondered whether this year would be the end of OER. The bulk of my concern was expressed in these two paragraphs:

Open education currently has no response to the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers. To the best of my knowledge there is no one really working on next gen OER—OER that are interactive, simulative, really rich with multimedia AND combined with OAR [open assessment resources] that drive diagnosis, remediation, and adaptation. There’s certainly no one funding next gen OER. And believe me, if it took $100 million to get the field to where it currently stands in terms of relatively static openly licensed content, it will take at least that much investment again over the next decade for the field to do something truly next gen.
Because this stuff costs so much to do, if no one steps up to the funding plate the entire field is at serious risk. Much has been written about 2012 being “the year of OER.” Let’s hope it’s not the year OER peaks. We need brains, energy, and funding on the next gen OER/OAR problem NOW.

These publisher platforms can have real benefits. For example, imagine two versions of a college algebra course. In the first, you go home after class, do your homework on paper, and then bring it to class and turn it in. Three to five days later, when the teacher returns your paper, you find out if you actually understood the math. (If you didn’t, what do you do now?) In the second scenario, you do homework in an online system that automatically grades each practice problem in real time and provides you with feedback about your performance.

Then imagine these scenarios from the instructor’s perspective—in the first, you’re grading some papers while coordinating TAs who are supposed to be grading the others (but occasionally aren’t pulling their weight), without ever really knowing what’s going on in the class because you don’t see every students’ work. In the second, the work is all graded automatically and you have some reporting view of where the class is succeeding and where they’re struggling.

I (and my teammates at Lumen) have heard over and over and over and over again from math faculty some variation on “I’m never going back to hand-grading homework.” No matter how much their current math textbook and online practice system costs, no matter how good the math OER are that can replace their current textbook, if there’s no platform that provides immediate feedback to students and frees up faculty for more engaging uses of their time, there will be no OER adoption. This is a case where OER adoption could actually be a step backwards, both for students and faculty.

Whether publishers have pushed forward with these platforms because they see their benefit to students and faculty, or because they see them as a bulwark against OER, they are increasingly successful in advocating for them with faculty. What you once heard only from math faculty (“I’m never going back to hand-grading”) you now hear from faculty across disciplines from economics to chemistry to psychology. An OER advocate that walks into a faculty office and argues for them to trade their current arrangement (which increases the speed with which students receive feedback and decreases the time faculty spend grading) for static OER is going to sound like they understand very little about the realities of teachers and students. And they’re not going to be a very successful advocate.

Much of the OER movement has a bad attitude about platforms. (And if 2017 is the end of the road for our vision of the transformative power of OER, it will be our own fault.) We think platforms like Pearson’s MyLab and Cengage’s MindTap are the enemy. There is a lot of baby and a lot of bathwater to platforms like these, but we seem to be incapable of having a grown up conversation on this topic. Yes, price gouging students is immoral, unethical and deplorable, everywhere it happens—including on the platform side. Yes, leasing students temporary access to OER locked inside a platform, only to shut them out at the end of term, is ridiculous. Yes, working actively to erode the student-faculty relationship—or worse, somehow obviate the faculty role—by trying to create “a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind” is entirely wrong-headed. (Those who worship at the altar of scale will eventually find themselves sacrificed thereon.)


Yes, algorithmically generating practice opportunities so that students can get all the practice they need is better for learning than 50 problems at the end of a chapter. (Only the odd problems have solutions.) Yes, providing immediate feedback to students supports their learning better than feedback that comes only after lengthy delays (if at all). Yes, providing faculty with a more detailed view of what students are struggling with can help them make better use of time in class. And yes, freeing up faculty from grading so they can spend more time with students is good for both faculty and students.

This is where imagination becomes important. OER advocates need to recognize that the benefits of these kinds of platforms can exist independent of the problems traditionally associated with them. Just because publishers attach extremely unattractive prices, terms of use and “features” to their versions of these platforms doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to design and create better versions that maximize the benefits while minimizing the problems.

Another way in which the OER movement’s thinking about platforms gets turned around is our obsession with discovery and assembly. Those of us (first person inclusive pronoun) who are madly in love with OER imagine that—like us—other faculty want to spend time searching for OER on Google and in other collections, locating small pieces of content, and bringing these dozens or hundreds of pieces together to create a cohesive learning experience for students. They don’t. Time and again we have seen that—even when provided with permissions and tools – the overwhelming majority of faculty do not engage in revise and remix types of activities. (The exceptions to this rule are awesome, but they are exceptions nonetheless.)

Of course the new platforms we need will support and encourage revise and remix—I believe that as faculty mature in their understanding of OER they will have a greater desire to engage in these and other open pedagogy practices. However, believing that these types of activities are the front door through which new faculty want to enter the world of OER is just wrong. Like normal people generally do, normal faculty are looking for the easiest way to do things—in this case, make the transition from traditional publisher materials to OER. This is why ready-to-use options like open textbooks from OpenStax or open courseware from Lumen Learning are so popular among faculty—they’re super easy to adopt and use right now. The tinkering and revising and remixing can come later.

Our twenty-year-old desire to “finally” end the problems associated with OER discovery and assembly distract us from the bigger need to create platforms that can deliver OER in a way that faculty members who have used modern publisher systems will be willing to adopt. Making it easier to find and combine videos and book chapters for static delivery isn’t going to lead to widespread OER adoption. (You can argue that it might have made a difference in 2007, but it won’t in 2017.)

Our fixation on discovery and assembly also distracts us from other serious platform needs—like platforms for the collaborative development of OER and open assessments (assessments are the lifeblood of this new generation of platforms), where faculty and students can work together to create and update the core materials that support learning in our institutions. Our work in OER will never be truly sustainable until faculty and students jointly own this process, and that can’t happen until a new category of tools emerges that enables and supports this critical work. (Grant money for OER creation won’t last forever.)

And don’t even start trying to explain how the LMS is the answer. Just don’t.

Returning to the original essay from 2012… The Gates Foundation’s 2014 Next Generation Courseware Challenge grants provided funding for the kind of work described above, resulting in things like OpenStax Tutor and Lumen’s Waymaker. I’m particularly proud of what we’ve done (and continue to do) with Waymaker, but I also recognize that this problem won’t be solved with one round of grant funding and fewer than ten organizations participating. The conversation needs to be larger, the sense of urgency needs to be greater, and the vision and imagination of what’s possible needs to be far, far broader.

PDFs aren’t going to get us there. We need more efforts to provide the benefits of publishers’ “adaptive” systems while honoring and enabling the values of the OER community (e.g., the 5Rs and open pedagogy) and more support of these efforts.

The tl;dr is this: faculty (who make the decision about what resources will be used by students) love these systems, and with good reason—they can make things better for students and faculty alike. If the OER community doesn’t recognize that and start providing and promoting viable alternatives to publishers’ platforms, the best possible future for OER is being locked down inside a Pearson MyLab playing second fiddle to proprietary content. No 5Rs and no open pedagogy. See my notes on the recent MindTap ACE announcement for a “real world example.”

David Wiley (@opencontent) is co-founder and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up