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Open Education Resources

The Uncertain Future of OER

High-quality open educational resources that are freely shared and improved upon have enormous appeal, but they’re not a reality yet—and may never be.

Open educational resources (OER) have been on the cusp of arriving for more than 15 years, but somehow they never do. So what’s the holdup?

The term open educational resources was coined in 2002 by UNESCO, though the materials had been around for several years by that time. The idea traces its lineage back through the open-source software movement of the late 1990s, and later the so-called sharing economy—bold, even revolutionary, digital initiatives that undermined traditional centers of authority and gave us people-powered websites like Flickr, Wikipedia, Etsy, and Airbnb. Skeptics abounded, but the new models soon operated at enormous scale, mobilizing millions of people to publish their own content, launch home businesses, and rate and review everything from automobiles to movies.

In the field of education, this flood of collective wisdom quickly made its mark, with the internet as a whole threatening school libraries and Wikipedia sweeping print encyclopedias into the dustbin. The textbook business, long dominated by highly profitable companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill, suddenly looked vulnerable.

UNESCO saw the same potential, positioning OER as the “technology-enabled, open provision of educational resources for consultation, use, and adaptation by a community of users for noncommercial purposes.” The organization’s goal was to promote wider access to high-quality higher education across the globe. The U.S. Department of Education promotes access to OER at the K–12 level through the #GoOpen Initiative.

In some ways, wide adoption of OER seems to be on track. In the U.S., there are clear standards, as materials are expected to be freely shared with “5R permissions”—they can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed. Educators can download and adapt the available materials as they please at no cost. But many of the other dynamics that appear to be necessary for a healthy open-source initiative haven’t panned out, at least not yet.

Teachers Aren’t Onboard—With Good Reason

Perhaps the most critical problem for OER: Specific resources can be difficult to find, a topic that Edutopia explored in 2015 and again in 2017. We weren’t the first ones to notice that difficulty, either. Back in 2012, when OER were more than a decade old, Gerd Kortemeyer, a professor at Michigan State University, pointed out that they had not noticeably affected teaching and cited a number of barriers to their potential to do so, including poor quality and the difficulty of finding the right resource. Researchers led by David Wiley, then a professor at Brigham Young University, raised the discoverability issue again in 2013, pointing out that it would need to be solved if OER were to achieve their potential.

Five years later, it hasn’t been solved.

But OER face other daunting issues, too. Unlike Wikipedia, Yelp, and Airbnb, most OER websites have failed to attract a large and active audience, have no widely adopted mechanism for ranking or maintaining the quality and timeliness of the materials, and lag behind industry standards of design and usability. The resulting systems can be frustratingly complex and often spit back listings that are hard to make sense of—a nonstarter for busy K–12 teachers struggling to keep their heads above water.

If you want some basic facts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, for example, you can go to Wikipedia, which despite its known shortcomings is at least a starting point. But if you want additional teaching resources about King geared to your grade level—a writing assignment, a lesson plan, a project—you might search OER Commons, Curriki, Amazon Inspire, OpenEd, or any number of other open-source education sites.

The results are uneven. Most of the King lesson plans for middle school social studies at Curriki, for example, are from partner organizations—not your fellow teachers. The majority of them have not been rated by users. And teachers have not taken those materials, adapted them, and re-uploaded them to share their improvements—in the OER field, unlike at Wikipedia, the revising and remixing seem to be happening offline, if at all, and the original resources are not undergoing continuous improvement. So a vital aspect of the sharing economy—the idea that everyone is a content creator—does not seem to be panning out for OER.

But for Budgetary Reasons, OER Aren’t Going Away

At the end of 2017, EdSurge said that had been the “breakthrough year” for OER in college and predicted that they would soon be essential in higher ed, noting that OER-related bills had been introduced in over half of state legislatures—legislation that in many cases applied to grades K–12 as well as colleges.

In early March 2018, for example, the Washington State Senate unanimously approved a bill that would “expand the development of open educational resources in public four-year institutions and the state’s K–12 education system…. The bill also requires the Washington Student Achievement Council to conduct outreach to other states to identify interest in a multistate open educational resource network.”

What accounts for the legislative push? One pressing point is the cost of textbooks—a General Accounting Office study in 2013 found that while the overall rate of inflation between 2002 and 2012 was 28 percent, the cost of college textbooks rose by 82 percent, and Forbes noted in 2012 that “nationwide, including K–12, textbook sales are a $10 billion industry and have been rising at twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years.”

Despite the preferences of lawmakers working with tight budgets, the “open” aspect of OER may not end up meaning “free.” Macmillan Learning, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill, among others, have introduced products that allow users to access OER as well as proprietary content. That sounds suspiciously close to an upsell strategy, and Inside Higher Ed reports that critics “question whether OER that you pay to access is really still open.” They’re right to ask.

Perhaps it’s another kind of decentralized model—one that looks more like a digital marketplace that pays teachers for their contributions—that will ultimately gain traction. Teachers Pay Teachers, which has been around since 2006, paid out about $100 million across the 3 million resources on the site in 2017, reaping commissions of 20 percent to 45 percent, according to reporting by NPR.

The problem with that, of course, is that while teachers are getting paid, they’re also the ones paying. That’s a serious issue, considering that 94 percent of teachers recently reported spending an average of $479 of their own money each year on school supplies. And that points to an equity issue in any paid model—the schools with the most resources will be able to pay for high-quality resources, and poorer schools will continue to make do with substandard ones, or with none at all.

Theresa Cullen, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches preservice and in-service teachers about OER, says that the real developments are happening not at sites like OER Commons or Curriki but at the district level, as school systems that can’t afford to update old textbooks—Broken Arrow Public Schools in Oklahoma, for example—are instead creating their own. But if districts follow this path, the discoverability problem may never be solved, and some of the most powerful aspects of healthy open systems—the remixing, rating, and collaboration that would make good use of educators’ hard-earned expertise—may never come to pass. The resources will be technically open, but if they’re produced by a single source, they may feel an awful lot like old school textbooks.

So will we ever get to a Wikipedia-type model of teaching resources, with teachers freely giving and taking textbooks, lesson plans, and tests, refining and improving them, and sharing their improvements? There’s no clear path right now to achieving that model—you can’t will the proper ecosystem into existence, and overburdened teachers haven’t built it up from the grassroots. Should we even want them to?

After nearly two decades, it’s still too soon to tell when, how—or even if—OER’s moment will arrive for K–12 education.