Can open educational resources rise again?

“I haven’t heard any other journalists use the term OER,” Anant Agarwal of the MOOC platform EdX told me recently.

This is a shame, to put it mildly. OER, or open educational resources, just means any type of material that is useful for learning and either in the public domain or published under Creative Commons license, making it essentially free for schools to adopt. Creative Commons licenses also encourage “remixing” of material, meaning that teachers and learners using a Creative Commons digital textbook, say, can add their own comments or improvements, and upload it for others to use.

OER had a proud beginning with MIT releasing video, outlines, syllabi and other materials for all its courses online beginning in 2001. Today the OCW (Open Courseware) Consortium has hundreds of university members in dozens of countries. But discovery, uptake, sharing and remixing of these resources has never been as robust as the movement would have hoped.

In the meantime, commercial textbook publishers like Pearson, technology companies like Apple and Amazon, venture capital investors, and even previously unrelated companies like News Corp, have started to see a massive opportunity in purveying tech to classrooms. Going digital in K-12 has become synonymous with selling out and buying in.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. One of the standardbearers of an alternative vision, surprisingly, is Agarwal. Edx, unlike the other famous MOOC platforms, Coursera and Udacity, which are venture-backed startups, is a nonprofit funded by the endowments of Harvard and MIT. Earlier this month, they released the code underlying their course architecture under an open source license. This means that universities could host and modify their own version of the code to create their own video-based courses. “We want to be the Linux of online education,” Agarwal told me, referring to the massively successful open-source operating system.

The edX courses themselves aren’t OER, with the exception of those offered by Delft University. Agarwal is currently working with Creative Commons on ways to license the course content itself so it can be reused, but not abused.

More directly relevant to K-12, Professor David Wiley, one of the original unheralded geniuses of OER, has just launched an important startup, Lumen Learning. Its purposes is to help school districts and community colleges adopt the free, high-quality open textbooks and resources that are already out there, so they can cut their textbook costs to zero while maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

“We do strategic consulting, so it’s not just a faculty member staring at Google,” Wiley says. “We help faculty meet before the term starts and do more assembling, massaging, adapting. That’s the last mile that we hadn’t been getting across in terms of helping adoption of open courseware happen.”

In Wiley’s home state, 30 teachers and 6000 students have participated in a pilot, the Utah Open Textbook Project. The teachers adopted open textbooks that were free to read online and $5 for a printed copy in middle and high school science classes. Initially there was no difference in standardized test scores for students using a $5 book vs a $100 book, while current research reflects a slight improvement in learning for students who used the open resources.

“We want to be something like a Red Hat for the open education community,” says Wiley, referring to a tech company that makes a living by helping people find and use open source software.

This model has a lot of potential because it helps school districts save money, instead of spending money, in the transition to using new technology, and because it gets teachers involved in a collaborative process of adoption: discovering materials that fit their students’ needs and altering them when they don’t.  This compares favorably to what I know of the current procurement model, where administrators and district-level employees make most of the top-level decisions about what kind of materials and tools to purchase.

Does your school use OER? For a list of Creative Commons-licensed resources check out this link.