The Doctor and the Gym

We will have made great progress on the OER front when educators and institutions make OER the default choice and feel the need to justify using closed content. Right now, the opposite is generally true: Closed content is the default and people need compelling reasons to replace it with OER. When the norms have changed, OER will be in the mainstream*.

As I have visited with folks in the OER community these past few months, people have continually highlighted two major reasons people adopt OER: (a) to save money and  (b) to improve teaching and learning. These two reasons for adopting fit naturally with the two key characteristics of OER: free use and repurposing. The characteristic of free use lends itself to the economical motivation for using OER; while the ability to revise, remix, reuse, redistribute, and retain resources provides opportunity for improved teaching and deeper learning.

As I have thought about why people choose to adopt OER, I’ve come to realize that there are important and fundamental differences between the two major motivations for adoption. A simple health metaphor helps me understand these differences and sheds some light on how we might approach persuading more people to adopt OER. When we are sick or in pain, most of us don’t need much motivation to seek help or go to the doctor. When we are otherwise healthy, however, most of us need quite a bit of external motivation to take steps to strengthen our bodies and improve our health through proper exercise and diet.

I think, in most cases, the same is true for OER adoption. In most educational settings, especially those with large numbers of at-risk students like community colleges and public K-12 schools, the economic situation is tenuous. People and systems are in financial pain and need very little extra motivation to accept an obvious remedy when it is presented. In these situations, the economic argument for OER brings welcome relief. However, in the same way that someone with a broken leg is not likely to respond well to encouragement to run laps at the gym, those feeling heavy financial pain are not likely to respond enthusiastically to exhortations to improve teaching and learning through OER. It just isn’t a compelling reason for them to adopt**.

If we want OER to become the default, we need people to use OER and to know that they are using OER. In the United States and Canada, particularly, the economic argument for OER is a compelling reason to adopt at all educational levels. Using the economic argument does not diminish OER’s potential for improving teaching and learning. Instead, it is a gateway that people want to enter so they can feel better. And when they enter this gate, evidence in the field shows that they are more likely to go to the proverbial gym and start using OER in ways that leverage the open license. To be sure, the real power of OER is in its potential to improve teaching and learning through open pedagogy. But we may never get to the point where effective use of OER is a mainstream practice until lots and lots of people are using it to meet their more basic needs.

*Credit goes to Nick Shockey of SPARC for framing the mainstreaming of OER in the context of setting defaults and shifting norms.

**I fully recognize that there are many educators who find the opportunity to use OER to improve teaching and learning a compelling reason to adopt. However, I think there are many more people who would adopt OER for economic reasons. It is entirely possible, and desirable, to focus on both motivators for adoption simultaneously. The point of this metaphor is to illuminate the need to pay attention to these diverse motivators and tailor the approach accordingly.

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