OER overcomes cost problems….and more?

I’m betting we’ve only begun exploring the unique – perhaps stranger? – things that OER can do for education. It’s an addictive idea: resources are pulled together in the public domain, free to use and re-purpose. What we’ve discovered is that there are hard and fast benefits from doing so, to the tune of…. one billion dollars saved by students annualy.


It’s interesting that OER can indeed save so much money, that it’s endorsed by Dr. Evil, and stuff like that. Can OER do even more? I believe this is where things become interesting and even more compelling.

OER relies on the efforts of the collective. Some efforts may be what Clay Shirky calls cognitive surplus. Some is a form of crowd-sourcing that some wish to describe as expert-sourcing (crowd-sourcing minus the rank amateur). Either way, a type of social organization and harnessing of effort is needed. Once critial mass has gained enough steam to create, this group effort may continue creating, mutiplying resources. I think this is where things get interesting.

What is possible that OER may contribute? If the cost is zero and the supply is theoretically infinite, the number of opportunities are massive. Personalized learning may benefit. Adaptive learning requires a staggering amount of content to feed its algorithms and dish up material to learners. Likewise, differentiated learning requires enough variations of material to present different choices and paths to diverse learners. OER can feed these hungry machines because of the massive potential to create and output content, thus enabling hew opportunities to personalize learning.

Likewise OER may feed into the incredibly numerous factors that affect learning outcomes, like those that comprise much of John Hattie’s Visible Learning Ranking, in effect becoming a curated library of best-of topical resources based on research. Such a ranking could inform the creation and archiving of OER, such that any topic has a ready-made rich collection of ranked resources, scores deep categorically.

Stranger things have happened…


Simplifying the discussion of the rising cost of education

While there is nothing simple about education or its rising costs, I’d like to quickly simplify the discussion about the data on the issue.

New textbook COSTS HAVE RISEN on average 6%/year since 2001: triple the cost of inflation.


Student expenditures on required materials and books have REMAINED FAIRLY FLAT (they’ve found ways around – renting textbooks, etc).

Importantly, as David Wiley notes in terms of impact, students seem to be TAKING FEWER COURSES AND PERFORMING MORE POORLY as a result of (high) textbook costs.

The take-away? ALL costs of education are generally rising much faster than costs of other “stuff.” Education is increasingly hard to afford, and this is of course a very large, complex, multi-dimensional problem. Of the many ways to attack this, a few that are relevant to the conversation here stick out. Students do it in their educational choices, both micro (renting textbooks, etc.) and macro (where/how to attend schools). We can also attack some of it systemically with Open Educational Resource (OER) textbooks, although it is not a one-size-fits-all. This is one way to attack the smaller part of the whole problem. Competency-based education is another, large, avenue of attack, which is a topic for another day.


The Other who can least afford education

Education’s easy to take for granted—we all do it. And there’s the rub. Not only is it merely something “to do” (more on that later), but we often mentally dismiss its potential. Who is “we?” The broad Angl0-Saxon/Western European socio-economic classes that would likely be reading this. But we forget that the gift we’ve received is a key differentiator in our lives. Should we consider that others don’t receive education as we do? Some argue we shouldn’t, saying it’s truly unfortunate but not our legal responsibility. Others believe that education has no significant impact on the lives of others. Poppycock. We are beholden to care, and education certainly does impact people in big, positive ways.  

How are we beholden to care? Our relationship with others is trumped only by our relationship with The Other, who philosopher Emmanuel Levinas characterized as a primal, foundational relationship more basic than “the greater good.” This is an experiential, non-abstract way of thinking about the Golden Rule, centered on our dealings with humanity, one soul at a time. It’s an ideal framework because empathy doesn’t scale well—hearing that thousands of children have died in the Syrian Civil War doesn’t phase us much, but seeing and hearing one child’s suffering is like a punch in our gut. I care because I must care. Every Other of any age or race may as well be my own flesh and blood, whose wellbeing depends on what I do or do not do.

Well-being may be defined according to physical and mental health. Both are enabled by education. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there is a large amount of evidence of the positive correlation between education and physical health. For example, four years of education lowers 5-year mortality by 1.8% and risk of heart disease by 2.16%. There is evidence that education positively affects a wide variety of healthy choices, resilience, self-concepts, protection from environmental risks, preventative health care (including sexual), management of chronic/enabling conditions, avoidance of drugs and more. The list goes on and on.

Where there’s absence of mental health there tends to also be problems with physical health. This is significant, yet the toll of non-physical suffering is as well. The World Health Organization advocates that “an important determinant of mental health is education.” Longitudinal research indicates that education significantly decreases depression. Education often results in increased earning-power, which is tied to happiness (to a point). A job earned by learning better skills may not pay well but still be fulfilling and rewarding in a way that leads to mental health.

Importantly, education is not merely something you do, but is also about a mindset of learning. Learning and thinking critically leads to more healthy relationships and progressive views on the rights of others including women, children, and minority groups. These are born out by common sense and experience.

Education literally saves lives and prevents and remediates suffering. It is a work of grace that helps The Other help him and herself. Importantly, it then helps our most vulnerable, such as a young child in Syria (or anywhere). What are the myriad ways we can help facilitate the well-being that education provides those who can least afford it? We may not know until we jump in and discover by doing.

Wounded Syrian Kid Omran Daqneesh
ALEPPO, SYRIA – AUGUST 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) 5-year-old wounded Syrian kid Omran Daqneesh sits alone in the back of the ambulance after he got injured during Russian or Assad regime forces air strike targeting the Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 17, 2016. (Photo by Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)