Let's start off with the obvious. OERs, open textbooks, and other open content have never had more public support or momentum. State governments, universities, and organizations are all upping their openness game in an effort to combat the rising costs of education.
Here are just a few examples of the open learning content momentum:
- California senator will introduce open textbook legislation
- Utah State Office of Education will develop and support open textbooks in key curriculum areas
- Washington State passes legislation to develop a library of high-quality, openly licensed K-12 courseware that
8 is aligned with tCommon Core standards://apps.leg.wa.gov/
- OpenStax will offer free course materials for five common introductory classes
And this is only the tip of the open learning content iceberg. In addition to the plethora or organized OER and open textbook projects there are also thousands of individual instructors and teachers creating openly licensed learning content.
Yet, even the movement's biggest proponents know that simply showing up with free content won't lead to broad usage in the K-12 or Higher Education sectors. David Wiley points out that open content currently has no answer for "the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers." Others have made similar arguments and talk about the silted nature of open learning content. In my new book, The Future of Learning Content, I list several shortcomings that the OER and open textbook communities need to overcome in order for open learning content to revolutionize the US education landscape:
- A lack of discoverability of open learning content across the many disconnected silos
- A lack of proper, open mechanisms for aggregating and delivering OERs and open textbooks in cohesive and usable packages;
- An unevenness in quality across the pen learning content spectrum;
- An inconsistency in quality of open learning content.
The bottom line isn't that we have a shortage of open learning content but rather that we haven't yet figured out how to make it easy for instructors to use. In other words, we need to expand our efforts beyond making open learning content to making it useful.
Coolness and adaptive assessment packages aside, the real attraction of commercial publisher content is that it is easy. It's easy to find conformation on commercial textbook products and their ancillary packages. It's easy to adopt commercial textbook products and get them into the hands (or on the devices) of our students. It's easy to use these products in our classrooms, our LMS platforms, and in our mobile initiatives.
Do we really want open learning content to have a broad impact in US education? If so, we need to invest in initiatives that focus on discoverability, customization, and ease of adoption and and use. The future of open learning content depends on this investment.
In fact, as we look at current projections around the popularity and market penetration of OERs and open textbooks in the US, we're really looking at two possible futures. In one future we will continue creating lots of open learning content in disconnected silos and without the necessary mechanisms for making it easy to adopt and use. In this future the use of OERs and open textbooks will continue to grow through 2015 but will decline precipitously after that point in time.
In an alternative future, we will invest in making open learning content as easy to discover and use as commercial learning content. The result of this investment will be continued and aggressive growth in the adoption and use of open learning content.
Yes, we will also need to invest in those cool features and adaptive assessment packages. But price will be the driving factor for a few years to come and if we can add "easy" to "free" we just might have a huge winner on our hands.