OER as a New Hope: A Key to Disruptive Innovation in Education

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson, then a critical software update is ready for your brain (download now/remind me later/no thanks).

In their book, Christensen and his colleagues outline the process by which real, wholesale reform in education is going to come about (and they make no qualms about their staunch conviction that this reform will, in fact, come about…and soon). The gist of their argument is that reform will occur in two stages. The first stage will be the continued growth of online instruction facilitated by the need for such instruction in four key areas: schools that want to offer more AP courses, rural schools who want to offer more curricular breadth, resource-constrained secondary schools in urban areas, and home-schoolers. The second stage will involve the development and growth of what the authors call student-centric learning, defined primarily as user-generated online tools for personalized tutoring enabled by a facilitated network in which consumers exchange content with each other.

In essence, Christensen and colleagues are arguing that real reform in education will finally come about when it becomes normal for teachers, parents, and students to generate and exchange customized educational content with each other. Surprisingly, no direct mention is made in the book about open educational resources, even though OER will be the very things that will ultimately enable the wide-scale facilitated exchange of content envisioned by the authors.

The only indirect reference to OER is on page 142, where the authors “suspect that many thousands of teachers, as individuals, will begin using student-centric tools that they find in these networks and will put content that they develop onto the network for other teachers to use.” And then a footnote:

“This will happen even if they do not receive royalties for their work. As evidence, there are dozens of Web sites today on which teachers make their teaching plans available to other teachers–not in search of profit, but because their primary motivation is to help more children learn effectively. One such facilitated network for teachers to do this is Curriki…”

What the authors fail to discuss – though at least one blog post reveals their recognition of some aspects of the open education movement – is the critical role of OER in the education reform process they predict. In short, if exchange of content among consumers within a facilitated network is the key for “disrupting class,” then OER and open licensing are the keys that will enable and facilitate the exchange.

For those of us in the OpenEd movement, perhaps the most important take-away from this seminal book is the need to focus our efforts on areas of non-consumption, rather than continuing to “bloody ourselves by bashing the barriers that bar change in the existing system.” By continuing development and innovation of OER within the four areas identified by Christensen et al., the probability of eventual disruption of the current educational system – most especially the monolithic textbook publishing and adoption process – will increase dramatically.

(Photo credit: Some rights reserved by ShellyS – http://www.flickr.com/photos/shellysblogger/3223035195/sizes/m/in/photostream/)

Rapid Response: FlatWorldKnowledge Decision (Updated)

I was extremely disappointed to learn that FWK had made the decision to exit the OER community and, indeed, the OER cause. If the company is not careful, they have the potential to do great damage on their way out the door. The publishing industry has already begun the “We told you so” rhetoric because FWK has so far failed to make clear the reasons behind their decision. It is not likely the case that FWK wasn’t sustainable as a provider of high quality OER. They’ve been growing under their business model for quite some time. It is more probably the case that those funding the venture weren’t satisfied with the profit margins and revenue pace. In short, FWK wasn’t making enough money (or they weren’t making it fast enough) for those who don’t share the very principles of openness upon which the company was founded. If I’m correct about this, then FWK should take pains to emphasize that their OER business model is actually sustainable, so long as sustainability (not uber-profitability) is the primary goal. A statement to this effect would effectively nueter the hounds (or Cheshire cats, as the case may be) who are clamoring for opportunities to kill the OER movement.

If I am wrong about this and the FWK model is not, in fact, sustainable, then this should be made clear as well. In this situation, FWK would need to concede that this first attempt at a sustainable OER business model didn’t work in the long run. But, this would be no reason to give up on trying to figure it out. What if Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln or scores of others had given up on their first (or second, or third) attempts? I, for one, am confident that a sustainable model for producing and distributing OER is possible.

Supporting the Collaborative Development of OER Aligned with the Common Core: A Policy Brief

Executive Summary

Forty-seven states and territories have fully adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts and mathematics. The implementation of CCSS will be extremely costly to states, in part, because many districts will have to purchase new instructional materials and textbooks aligned to the CCSS out-of-cycle. Several policy options exist to help states deal with these costs, including increased federal funding, increased federal regulation of textbook publishers, and support of collaborative development of open educational resources (OER) aligned with CCSS. I recommend the third option because it not only offers a budgetary respite, but because it gives states unprecedented flexibility in instructional materials management.

The Problem

Reports estimate that implementing the CCSS will increase educational expenditures during the transition period (Pioneer Institute, 2012; Fordham Institute, 2012). A significant portion of these cost increases will occur because districts and schools in states that adopt the CCSS will need to purchase new instructional materials that are aligned with the new standards. This is a pressing problem for many states that are already experiencing budget deficits and struggling to figure out how to maintain (let alone increase) current educational spending.

Background and Context

Most of the states and territories in America have agreed to adopt the CCSS. States’ reasons for adopting common standards are varied. However, the main purpose of the CCSS according to the coalition that wrote them (which included state governmental and educational representatives from across the nation) is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them” (Common Core, 2012). Specifically, the developers and adopters of CCSS see the standards as a way to equalize opportunity for student learning, ensure consistency in educational expectations from state to state, and help maintain or increase America’s competitive edge in a global economy.

Despite the hype and rhetoric around widespread adoption and upcoming implementation of CCSS, at least one report warns that many states have not paid due attention to the fact that the adoption of CCSS is going to cost a lot of money (Pioneer Institute, 2012). This report explains that cost increases will likely occur in four main areas: (a) professional development, (b) testing, (c) technology and infrastructure support, and (d) textbooks and instructional materials. Focusing on just the fourth area, textbooks and instructional materials, the Pioneer Institute estimates that “states will need to spend approximately $2.47 billion in one time costs to obtain [CCSS]-aligned English language arts and mathematics instructional materials ” (2012). Even more startling, this cost estimate does not include the adoption of CCSS in science or any of the other proposed subject-matter areas.

The Pioneer Institute report is based on the current average cost of language arts and mathematics textbooks as sold by for-profit publishers. However, the report did not consider the rapidly growing availability of open educational resources. OER are instructional materials – including textbooks, modules, videos, and even entire courses – that are specifically licensed for reuse, remix, revision, and redistribution. This type of licensing allows for the development of essentially free educational content (Wiley, Bliss, McEwen, in press). Even more importantly, OER can be developed collaboratively, aligned to CCSS, and freely shared between and within states. Currently, there are over 500 million openly licensed educational resources (Cable Green at Creative Commons, personal communication, November 2, 2012), with more being developed every day. However, there are not currently any cross-state initiatives to develop textbooks and other instructional materials aligned specifically to the CCSS.

Policy Options

There are several policy options for addressing the increased costs of instructional materials necessitated by the adoption and implementation of the CSSS. First, the federal government could increase payouts to states to help cover costs. Second, the federal government could regulate for-profit textbook publishers and require them to decrease profit margins on materials sold to public schools. Third, state and federal governments could support the collaborative development and adoption of open educational resources aligned with CCSS. Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages for states.

The first option, federal assistance for instructional materials purchasing, is easy and simple because it requires little from states in terms of planning, implementation, and change. With additional federal funding specifically earmarked for purchasing of CSSS-aligned materials, states could carry-on with business as usual and not individually experience additional budgetary constraints in their instructional materials allotments. However, with this option, the American taxpayer will still have to cover the additional $2.47 billion dollars it is estimated to cost states to adopt new materials. In addition, it is extremely unlikely that federal funding for states would come without additional strings attached, a generally unfavorable policy situation for most states.

The second option, increased federal regulation of textbook publishers, would certainly have the advantage of decreasing the cost of instructional materials. However, federal invasion into free-market enterprise is often more politically controversial than increased educational spending. This option is not likely to succeed given the powerful influence of the textbook industry within Washington, DC. In addition, few federal legislators are going to support a policy that so clearly and directly disables a major national industry. In the end, passage of this policy option has a low probability of success and implementation is even less likely.

The third option, support of collaborative development and adoption of OER, will dramatically reduce the cost of instructional materials related to the adoption of CCSS. In addition, this option will allow states to ensure that the materials they are using in their schools are aligned not only to CCSS, but also to other state-specific standards and outcomes. Despite these advantages, the collaborative development of OER will require cooperation between states and dedication to a high quality product – a sometimes difficult accomplishment. What’s more, states will certainly feel pushback from the textbook publishers they have purchased from for many, many years. States will have to muster collective courage to burn some corporate bridges – even with publishers that operate within state boundaries.

Policy Recommendations

The estimated costs associated with the adoption of new instructional materials aligned with the CSSS are too high for most states to cover with current budgets. Something needs to be done if states are going to be able to actually afford to successfully adopt the CCSS. While there are several options for solving this issue, including increased federal funding and federal regulation, we recommend that federal and state governments enact policy supporting the collaborative development and adoption of open educational resources that are aligned with the CCSS. In particular, we offer the following policy recommendations:

First, the federal government should establish grants to state consortia for the development of OER aligned to CCSS. These grant programs must require that all instructional materials produced with federal funds be openly licensed using a Creative Commons attribution or non-commercial license (CC BY o r CC BY NC). Because there is no legal precedent for federal support of state instructional materials expenditures, this is a bold, precedent-setting recommendation.

Second, states should re-allocate some of their current instructional materials budget to grant programs that interstate district and school consortia could use to develop OER aligned with CCSS. The State of Washington, for instance, proposed a policy that would require 1.5% of the instructional materials budget be used for OER development (H.B. 2337-original, 2012). This bill was eventually revised to match the particulars of WA instructional materials allotments, but the original model is intriguing. As with the recommended federal grants, state administered grants should have open licensing requirements.

Third, states should enact policies and regulations that specifically fund OER development initiatives in the context of the CCSS. The State of California very recently passed legislation to this effect that will result in the development of several openly licensed textbooks to be used in community colleges (S. 1052, 2012). Similar bills aimed at K-12 are sorely needed (WA H.B. 2337 is a shining example).

Fourth, states should allocate some of their instructional materials and education budgets to hire staff that can oversee and implement inter and intra-state collaborations on OER development and adoption. Without administrative support, development projects are not likely to succeed or move quickly enough.

Implementation of these policy recommendations will solve the looming problem of increased instructional materials costs related to the adoption of CCSS. In addition, development and adoption of OER aligned to CCSS will allow states unprecedented flexibility in revision and adaptation of instructional materials to state and local standards.


CA. S. 1052. (2012).

Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012). Preparing America’s for college and career. Accessed at www.corestandards.org on November 2, 2012.

Fordham Institute (2012). Putting a price tag on the common core: How much will smart implementation cost? Washington, DC: Murphy, P., Regenstein, E. and McNamara, K.

Pioneer Institute (2012). National cost of aligning states and localities to the Common Core Standards. Boston: Author.

Wiley, D., Bliss, T., & McEwen, M. (In press). Open educational resources: A review of the literature. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications & Technology (4th ed.).

WA. H.B. 2337 (2012).

Taking Advantage of Open Textbooks in K-12

About 8 months ago I gave a short presentation to a group of faculty and superintendents in Arizona who were preparing to develop open textbooks in math and language arts in their districts. The presentation was about effective textbook study strategies that students could finally use because they would be able to mark up and annotate their open textbooks.

I didn’t think much about the presentation until last week when I was on bus in New Orleans and ran into an administrator from one of the Arizona districts. He told me that the presentation I had given on textbook study strategies had been extremely informative and useful to the teachers who had seen it. He wondered if I had a narrated version that he could use more broadly in his district and which he could share with other districts. I told him I was happy to hear that the presentation had been impactful and agreed to update the slides with more rigorous content and narration.

After a few long hours of wrestling with technical difficulties and a bit of SlideShare frustration (you can only upload files smaller than 100mb without a Pro account), I present to the world my revised and “much” requested presentation on Textbook Study Strategies (in the context of OER).

Of course, it is openly licensed as CC BY – so have it!

OER Policy Presentation Posted

Earlier this week I gave a presentation on OER Policy at the Virtual Schools Symposium in New Orleans. In this talk I gave the standard technical argument for OER and then discussed three unique cases of state-level policy models related to OER in Washington, Utah, and Texas. I was honored to have Rep. Scott Hochberg of the Texas House of Representatives join me in discussing the OER policy he pushed and successfully passed in Texas. In addition, Senator Howard Stephenson of Utah was kind enough to provide his brief first thoughts about OER and OER policy. I look forward to continuing the conversation with him here in Utah – especially since, up to this point, there hasn’t been any policy action on OER in the legislature.

You can access and download the slide deck from this presentation here.

Texas Legislature to OER Community: Where are you?

Last week I had the chance to chat with Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Texas legislator from Houston who has been heavily involved in getting OER policy passed in his state. He’s had remarkable success with bills like H.B 2488. This bill, in particular, has allowed the state board of education, which creates the approved instructional materials list for Texas, to include OER on that list. This is only POTENTIALLY impactful policy because, while school districts have authority to use OER, there has not been a lot of motivation to use it or go looking for it. It’s inefficient to have 1000 school districts looking for and approving OER.

As Rep. Hochberg explained it, the problem is that the OER community (especially producers of OER directed at K-12 audiences) do not seem too interested in getting involved in processes where they have to do something to get materials approved. In fact, traditional publishers have continued to have great success in Texas, despite all policy doors being open for OER. One of the reasons traditional model continues to dominate is because there are strong economic reasons for traditional materials publishers to jump through all the hoops. For instance, there is a big profit motive for Pearson to submit its textbooks. The same motivations are not there for OER producers. Thus, if you’re an administrator and you have Pearson knocking on your door and showing you stuff (which, by the way, is already approved by the state board), then OER becomes less appealing – even though it’s cheaper and possibly of equal or better quality.

In the end, Rep. Hochberg expressed his frustrations with the OER community not doing more to “get in the faces” of potential OER adopters at the K-12 level in Texas. There is so much potential in Texas right now. At least one policymaker is crying out for the OER community to take advantage of it!

OpenEd 12 Presentation: A Student Measure of the Quality of Open Digital Textbooks

I’ve posted the slide deck for my talk at Open Education Conference 2012, coming up next Wednesday in Vancouver, BC. This talk describes the work I’ve been doing to understand student perceptions of their open digital textbooks. My research is laying the groundwork for a rating instrument that teachers can use to get validated feedback from their students that will inform decisions about updating and revising their texts.

Check out the slide deck on Slideshare.

Intro to OER – NRMERA 2012 – Park City, UT

I’ve posted the slide deck from the OER Workshop I gave at the Northern Rocky Mountain Education Association meeting in Park City, UT last Friday.

Check it out on Slideshare.

The first part of the deck is a remix/revision of some of David’s earlier slides. For those who’ve already seen David’s excellent intro to OER, skip to slide 37 for slides on OER policy, implementation, business models, initiatives, and research.

Illustrating the Pain

This simple figure illustrates the barrier between teachers and (a) assessment training and expertise, (b) access to higher quality test items, and (c) self-awareness about actual assessment expertise. The barrier is multi-faceted and includes availability, opportunity, time, and money. Our edstartup idea provides clear and innovative solutions to each of these facets.

Validating Our Assumptions

Today I chatted face-to-face with eight teachers from various schools and subject areas (as well as with a couple of people within a school of education) to verify that the assumptions we have made about teachers’ pain are accurate.

Through my interviews, I was able to confirm each of following seven basic assumptions:

1. Teachers lack assessment training.

2. Teacher training programs do not have curricular space (or priority) for assessment training.

3. Assessment development is time consuming and often tedious.

4. Teachers rely on test banks and other sources of assessment items that have unknown quality and alignment.

5. Many teachers aren’t doing much to solve this problem. However, some teachers have started collaborative assessment development activities at the department, school or district levels. This means that some teachers, at least, are looking for ways to increase the test development efficiency and quality.

6. Very few teachers obtain assessment training through professional development activities. Generally, teachers who do obtain some training are those who have been asked to help in the development of large-scale standardized tests. This kind of training has limited applicability at the classroom level.

7. Teachers have limited access to high quality test items, but many teachers desire more access to such items.

In addition, my conversations with these teachers (and other education experts) revealed at least one other critical reality: teachers often don’t know what they don’t know about assessment.

It turns out that most teachers feel that they have sufficient capability in assessment development and evaluation. However, a few teachers that I talked to who had received minimal training (and one currently enrolled in a measurement Ph.D. program who has received significant training) were emphatic that their assessment knowledge prior to training was exceedingly limited but that they weren’t aware of the fact. What this means is that it will be critical to find the best way to help teachers realize the benefit that could be gained by using our product. One teacher (who is training to become a principal) recommended focusing our marketing toward administrators who, if bought-in, could persuade their teachers to use it. A second way to increase use would be to offer some sort of credit (college or licensure) for those who complete the training.

Finally, most of the teachers I talked with gave very positive feedback about the idea itself, including saying things like “I would use your database” and “Your training and database would be so helpful to me and other teachers I know.”

Photo Credit: http://www.innovationtools.com