Monday, February 20, 2017

The Unique Value of Open Educational Resources

Open and Education are concepts that fit together and compliment each other incredibly well. We will look at one aspect, the overlap of open source and education that is open educational resources (OER). For something that is such a natural fit, OER is comparatively unknown and underutilized.

There is a well established, oft cited definition for OER.

teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.

This permissive licensing is the minimum requirement for OER. What is the "much more" that I referred to in the tweet? What more can we do to increase the value of OER, both for the educational community and for the producers of the content? Can we build something akin to a rubric for accessing the value of an open educational project and how well we put that project to use?

The value and perception of OER strongly depends on perspective. OER presents different value propositions to educational institutions that consume them, students that consume them, educational institutions that produce them, and companies that produce them. And perhaps the most important value proposition, and definitely the least appreciated, the value to the student who produces content.


We have established the minimum requirement of a permissive license. These licenses take many forms, ranging to completely unfettered, public domain, content to the GNU AGPL V3 and the Creative Commons noncommercial noderivatives license. Arguably, this last example is so restrictive that it is not an open license.

As soon as a work is created, it is protected by copyright. As soon as a story is written, a painting made, a photograph taken, or a film shot, it is copyrighted. This means that the creator, or their employer, owns the intellectual property rights for the original work. Like other forms of property, the owner can sell those rights, trade them, or simply give them away.

This is why there are so many different open source licenses, and so many uses of the phrase open educational resources. The creator of the original intellectual property can follow almost any path they want to share, trade, or sell it. The license is the terms that the creator attaches to the use of their creation.

Luckily, one of the most popular open license sets, Creative Commons, has a very good explanation of their licenses. One of the reasons for their popularity is the simplicity and straight forward nature of their licenses, and their focus on content, not software. If you are looking for an open source license for your content, this is a great place to start. GitHub, a large open source repository, also provides a guide for choosing an open license, this one targeted more to the software development community.

An interesting side effect of attaching a permissive license to your work is that you are immediately conscious of the need to design the project for uses and interests beyond your own. It's still early and we have already touched on constructionism.


The cost of textbooks, and education in general, is increasing dramatically. This is placing an increasing burden on students and school districts.

82% increase in textbook prices 2002-2012
Textbook prices are increasing dramatically.

OERs promise to displace much of this cost. As tempting as it may be, it is important that schools and school districts not simply fixate on the cost savings. The most promising path includes a feedback loop where the the consumers of OER also invest in its improvement. Redirect some of the cost savings to resources for developing and obtaining expertise around the use of OER, and over a slightly longer term develop the ability to contribute to the creative process. Repeating this feedback loop over even a fraction of the 3 million teachers in the US will create a powerful force behind the improvement and adoption of open educational resources.


Just because it is free and open does not make it a good fit for education, moreover, it does not make it a good fit for your classroom. Conversely, even if the content is not targeted to education, you may find it a great fit to your class. So what are some of the things we need to look for the evaluate the usefulness and fit of a particular open educational resource?

The 5Rs

Ideally, OER provides all 5 of these values, commonly refreeed to as the 5Rs.

  • Retain: Users have the right to make, archive, and "own" copies of the content;
  • Reuse: Content can be reused in its unaltered form;
  • Revise: Content can be adapted, adjusted, modified or altered;
  • Remix: The original or revised content can be combined with other content to create something new;
  • Redistribute: Copies of the content can be shared with others in its original, revised or remixed form.

Retention can have a surprisingly strong effect, especially for students who normally can not markup and retain their text from year to year.


A common and basic criteria for any resource, educational or not, open or not, is correctness. Instructional material, no matter how well written, well designed, or well marketed, is worse than useless if it is not correct. A messaging utility is a poor investment if it loses data or misdirects messages, no matter the cost.

Open source materials have a clear advantage here. The inclusive, community driven, nature of open source makes it more likely that the community will provide constructive feedback. A well organized open source project will invite the community to contribute updates and corrections directly. Such constructive community involvement is important for the health of open source projects.


You can not talk about educational resources without talking about pedagogy. However, open resources can be used directly to teach, they can be used as resources in a larger project, or they can themselves be the target of an educational project. The evaluation of any resource will depend on how it is integrated into your class.

For direct teaching, the open resources often present the content as a whole, as with MIT's OpenCourseWare, Boundless or OpenStax College. For such complete content, we can ask questions such as:

  • Are there clear goals and expected results?
  • Does the product reflect an understanding of how people learn?
  • Is the level of the content appropriate to my class?

Many open resources encourage you to adapt and mix them with your own content and sometimes other content. When open content is mixed into existing content, evaluation is based on fundamentally different questions. Now we must look first at how the new content compliments the existing content.

  • Does it fill in a gap?
  • Does it present the same material through a different lens?
  • And most importantly, does it integrate with your content and with your presentation style?

Examples of content that can be incorporated into a larger whole include the Smithsonian 3D collection, Web Gallery of Art, and the author's own mathematics and physics visualizations.

Another interesting and valuable set of open resources for education is open data. Google has an excellent collection of public datasets, including extensive tools to visualize and analyze the data. CERN has recently made available extensive particle physics data along with software for its analysis. US census data is available including some wonderful visualizations, one of which details college majors and eventual careers. Data such as this can be used as an investigative tool by students, and in the case of the census data even to inform policy for the educator.

It is important to select data from high quality sources. It is easy to find data that is reflects bias on the part of the researcher or collection agency.

A far richer set of options is available for #OER than for a packaged end product because the open product is more open to mixing into the complete solution.

We will see a little bit later how a well organized open source project is more likely to get this, and many other factors, right than other approaches.


There are also a number of myths surrounding open source material. This results in additional effort to rework or reinvent already existing solutions. Experience has shown that where it is reasonable, it is better to utilize an existing solution and implement customizations and additions where necessary.

OER Myths Prevalence
Not professional 61%
Difficult to find/use 56%
Time-consuming for teachers 50%
Lacking support 39%
Lack of business models 39%
Unreliable 33%
Unsustainable 31%
Other 14%
Can lead to centralization 3%
Unfair practice 3%
Disruptive 3%
Frequently encountered arguments and fears against OER from the myths and obstacles paper cited above.

We've seen some myths, how about some facts from actual studies?

OER Facts Prevalence
increased interest 60.1%
Increased enthusiasm 59%
interested in a wider range of subjects 50%
Increased independence and self-reliance 48%
teachers share resources online 43.3%
teachers publish resources with a Creative Commons license 12.4%
OpenStax saved students over $3.7M in 2013
Some actual facts about open educational resources.

To be honest, using OER does require more effort, deeper thought, and a greater level of expertise than more traditional approaches. But we are all in the 90th percentile, right? Further, if we distribute this effort among us all, and form a strong ecosystem, the effort will be reduced dramatically. This is one of the main goals for this writeup. To get you involved not only in using, but in contributing to the OER ecosystem.


It is almost a tradition that open source products have poor usability. The target audience has often made the tradeoff of cost vs usability and polish. For educational content though, this is largely an unacceptable tradeoff. Wrestling with the design or interface will quickly distract and alienate the learner.

Much progress has been made on this front over the past several years, with open source products matching and sometime eclipsing their shrink wrapped rivals.


Accessibility is a close cousin to usability. Instruction, no matter how amazing it might be, is of little value if the learner can not access it.

So, what are the big barriers of accessibility. The traditional set of barriers are physical limitations such as blindness or hearing loss. Addressing these requires both intent and specialized knowledge.

Once again, feedback is important. A development community will almost never have complete coverage of the spectrum of hardware and software in use. Systems and combinations where things misbehave are important to know. Further, accessibility can be a strong differentiator in online reviews of content.

There are some great resources for implementing and evaluating accessibility.

New with the advent of technology is the so called digital divide. We can quickly recognize the opportunity for both lower cost and higher quality resources. However, a closer look quickly reveals that to take advantage of these opportunities, such as replacing printed commercial textbooks with open digital content, required widespread digital devices, connectivity and expertise. These things are not equally distributed. So, perversely, free resources can actually increase the digital divide.

Technology is such an important aspect of modern education that addressing the digital divide is a priority for local, state and federal governments.

The BYOD trend is another two edged sword. Students using their own devices to access and work with open educational resources is a powerful concept. It moves learning beyond specific devices and content provided by the school into a more real world context. This breaks the association of learning is something that happens in the classroom and transform it into a lifelong process that happens everywhere. However, it brings the unequal access to technology into sharp focus.

Even when students can keep OER, with their own notes and additions, after the course is over, it is of limited use if they don't have their own device. This is another example of how the educational, and OER, ecosystem is complex and layered. But that just means that there are many avenues to contribute.

Availability & Findability

Even the best content has limited value if you can't find it. This means that you have to know to look for it, and there has to be an easy path to find it. This is the first time we will see a significant business value behind OER as the open content becomes part of the sales funnel. OER can be a great way to quickly gain market awareness, and, as we will see, to build a strong user community.

Between two-thirds and three-quarters of all faculty classify themselves as unaware on OER. This shows clearly that one of the most important thresholds we need to cross is one of simple awareness.

Google Trends gives us an interesting picture of interest in a few OER topics, and how it has changed over time.

PhET stands out with its strong increase in search queries and brand identity.

Of these terms, the most striking thing is that only PhET shows a strong upward trend. Interest in Creative Commons has a gentle raise until late 2011, then shows a slight decline over time. Even Khan Academy enjoyed a spike from a March 2012 60 Minutes story but was flat afterwards.

It's also interesting to look at the web traffic rankings for some of the largest OER collections. We throw in Pearson, a high profile, but not open, education company for comparison. The open education sites have respectable numbers with the well connected Khan Academy leading the traffic race. Apparently marketing is effective for OER. No one organization has a commanding presence in the OER marketplace leaving considerable room for growth and evolution.

Site Global Traffic Rank US Traffic Rank
Boundless Learning 5,219 2,727
Connexions 50,515 18,301
Creative Commons 5,492 4,282
Khan Academy 632 167
OER Commons 114,492 29,952
OpenStax 75,181 18,985
Pearson 5,459 1,187
PhET 3,391 1,378
Kahn Academy and PhET show how to build an audience with OER.

The table shows a snapshot of traffic for select OER sites. We clearly see these sites have a slightly higher proportion of traffic in the US than the rest of the world. Also interesting is how that traffic is changing over time. They are showing significant growth over time, with OpenStax as an extreme case.

The traffic for OpenStax shows a massive increase over the past year, likely due to expanded use of their textbooks.

Comparing traffic statistics with search trends leads to some interesting conclusions. While clearly dominaning traffic, Khan Academy is far from the most active search term. PhET, which dominates search, is closer to the mean for traffic.

Clearly the principle driver for traffic to many educational sites is not brand search. Indeed, for the author, virtually no traffic comes from beand driven search. Almost all traffic comes from content driven subject matter search. Reputation and referrals from faculty and students also has a significant impact on overall traffic.

More to come soon