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.

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