OpenFiction [Blog]

Haunted by the ghosts

A couple of difficulties is talking about OER:

One: “Open educational resources” represents a broad and diverse field of practices that function in a range of ways, and to speak of them as a unified whole (unintentionally or intentionally) or expect them all to function in the same way is to confuse apples with oranges.

Two: Since OER is a relatively new field, and grew out of a number of precedents including open source software, open content and learning objects, one of the consistent issues I see arise is that people tend to projects their agendas from other realms onto the relatively blank slate of OER, rather than looking at what is actually going on.

I see both of these issues at work in David’s latest installment on OER adoption. Being unable to travel either to OpenEd or the Asia OCW Conference this year, I find myself with time to unpack how the issues above are at work in his response.

Disposing of the first issue above, throughout the post, David treats OER as a unified whole that must have a unified goal–in this case saving money. I do hope that OER will be able to generate some cost savings, and I see the best opportunities for this in open access journals and open text books. These would seem to offer savings opportunities, though, not because of their relationship to formal education, but because of their relationship to a media industry that is struggling to make its peace with the digital environment, and not doing a good job.

OpenCourseWare is different (at least in the higher ed realm) in that there is no significant media industry out there making money on the sales of course content alone. Outside of The Learning Company’s videos of lectures and a few other niche products, OCW hasn’t been trying to supplant some other for-profit producer that’s been raising prices on paying customers to offset losses due to digital copying as journal and textbook publishers have. That’s what has enabled OCW to spread as widely as it has and what makes it an effective wedge to begin discussions of open sharing on campuses. The success of OCW at MIT no doubt made the discussion of an MIT open access publishing policy easier to have. To lump OCW together with other OER and say the point of the thing is cost savings is a mistake.

On the second issue above, a common rhetorical device I often see in discussions of OCW, and one David uses here, is:

1) The value of OCW is (insert agenda here).
2) There is no evidence of (agenda).
3) Therefore OCW is unsuccessful.

David employs this in asking:

How many displacing adoptions are happening inside MIT thanks to the existence of MIT OCW? Since their OCW is the largest of them all, they could potentially be saving their students more money than anyone else. I’d love to see some data on this out of MIT OCW.

Is there evidence that MIT is saving MIT students money with OCW?  Not a lot. Does this lack of evidence mean that OCW doesn’t benefit MIT students? No, and we’ve actually documented considerable benefits for MIT students generated by the site. 93% of undergraduates and 82% of graduates use the site; 70% of MIT students use the site materials to compliment those they receive in class, 46% use it as a course planning tool, and 39% use it for personal learning; 58% of students rate the site’s impact on student experience as “extremely positive” or positive” and only 4% indicate no positive impact. Lots of benefit, just not the particular benefit of cost savings, which is David’s interest.

From a broader perspective, there’s no doubt that OCW and other OER are producing tangible benefit on a relatively large scale. Millions of people are accessing the materials and hundreds of universities are sharing open educational resources. I suppose its possible that these millions are people we don’t really want to serve and that all these universities have been duped and deluded into believing there is some benefit for them in sharing their materials as they are when there really isn’t. Or it’s possible that lots and lots of people are being helped by the open sharing of educational materials and that there really are tangible benefits for universities even if they turn out to be not the ones that we were expecting.

I learned this early on in my experience with OCW. If your asked 2003-vintage me what the benefits of the project would be, I’d have said, “Oh, definitely, with faculty reusing the content. This is stuff someone is going to have to take and modify and teach in a classroom. It’s not stuff you just dive into without guidance.” When the early returns from our surveys indicated half the people visiting our site had no connection to a university, either as a faculty member or student, I decided it was a better idea to look at what the data was saying rather than guess how I thought the resource would be useful. After all, you can beg a chicken all day for milk and she’s only ever going to give you eggs, but eggs are pretty good too.

Is OCW useful to formal higher education? I’d say the data indicates it is. After all, if 50% of our visitors are not associated with a university, that means that about 50% are. That’s a lot of people, 400-500K a month to the MIT OpenCourseWare site alone, and from virtually every higher ed institution out there. We’ve gotten 2,600 visits this year from BYU, not all of which I assume are coming from David. Have we documented a raft of cost-saving opportunities for faculty and students at other universities? Again, not a lot. One third of students at other schools are using OCW to complement materials from their enrolled classes, and 12% of those indicate the site has saved them money in doing so. That’s a relatively small portion of the overall use. Does this mean there are no benefits?

If I had to put a stake in the ground on how OCW generates benefit for others, right now I’d say primarily as a reference tool that is used for a range of academic activities, including independent (not distance) learning, curricular planning and development, supplements to classroom learning, academic planning, and professional development and problem-solving. Interestingly, many of these benefit from accessing the materials in situ, embedded in the OCW site and MIT curricular structure, rather than disaggregated and localized. Thus, linking is a better strategy to support many of these activities.

David discusses at length the evils of linking, making absolute (and intentionally provocative) statements that in his mind follow from reliance on it at the expense of remix/reuse:

If linking is going to constitute the primary method of adopting OER, every penny spent on the process of openly licensing material for OCW or OER publication has been wasted.

and

When you define “adoption” as linking, there is literally no need to concern yourself with licensing or openness. When you define adoption as linking, you undermine everything that separates OER from the other resources on the web.

Here again, only true if you believe adoption and localization by individual faculty members is the primary reason for the open licenses. If you take a view that reference uses are a large part of the benefit, and you look at the area where the open licenses have been employed to greatest effect, it becomes clear that the licenses are quite important. Since we launched the site, more than 800 translations of our courses have been made into a range of languages. My best estimate is that back-of-the-envelope these represent about $10 million in funds and effort contributed by other organizations, and all made possible by the open licenses. They’ve attracted a huge amount of traffic–at least 30 million visits–and I would guess that most of the use on the other side of the language divide has been largely reference rather than remix as well. Licenses are a vital part of providing additional access to the content.

How does OCW benefit MIT if not through cost? Right now I’d say largely though transparency. MIT as an institution has better visibility into what it teaches and how; faculty teaching advanced courses understand more about what their students learn in foundational courses. Faculty also likely improve their materials in preparing them for open publication; they definitely make new connections based on the open publication; they increase their own professional standing and that of their departments. Students at MIT make much better academic decisions and understand how their chosen field relates to other disciplines (crucial in addressing cross disciplinary challenges like energy, cancer and environmental preservation); before they come to MIT, they have a better idea of what the academic experience at MIT will be like through visiting the site. Does any of this make MIT any cheaper? Maybe at the margins. Does it make MIT better? No doubt.

3 Responses

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  1. […] on OER and Adoption Published on October 29, 2010 in open content. 0 CommentsGreat responses from Carson and Downes to my post yesterday on adoption as linking. It’s great to participate in a […]

  2. […] of terms like “incorporate” and “provide” based on comments in his previous post:If I had to put a stake in the ground on how OCW generates benefit for others, right now I’d […]

  3. […] Steve (10/29): I do hope that OER will be able to generate some cost savings, and I see the best opportunities for this in open access journals and open text books. These would seem to offer savings opportunities, though, not because of their relationship to formal education, but because of their relationship to a media industry that is struggling to make its peace with the digital environment, and not doing a good job. OpenCourseWare is different (at least in the higher ed realm) in that there is no significant media industry out there making money on the sales of course content alone. […]


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