A Food Bank for Learning

Every Christmas season I swear that my children will receive fewer of the bounty of presents they receive, and do more for others in need. And so this year was no different. Of course, it is something I habitually vow, and inertia can be difficult to overcome. And then this came in the mail…


A holidays solicitation to donate to the Food Bank. Ah the Food Bank, my old friend who I’ve never known but only admired from afar and mused over their solicitations in the mail. In which of the variety of ways do you wish to give: by contributing time? Cash? Canned goods? Boxed goods? Meals cooked together in different ways for different people? As I read again the request to donate, I questioned that “every $10 you donate allows us to provide &73.50 worth of goods and services.” I could imagine a possible doubling but $7 for $1, really? I began researching and sure enough, I decided this is likely legitimate (a great discussion about this on NPR can be found here). I signed up to donate monthly. It felt good and I know that it will help others.

Open education is a way of broadening access to education, thereby helping others. Like a Food Bank, Open pools learning resources (instead of food) to freely distribute them to others in need. A small contribution multiplies and extends out to many more. Although free, these actions are rewarding to those who share and receive alike. Open Educational Resources come in a variety and can be cooked together in different ways for different people.

Please continue to read why and how Open Education helps others. It is no less than any other form of charity.

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, mostly 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 faze 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 and critical thinking, which in turn often leads to healthier behaviors. Examples include increased sensitivity and awareness of others; skills for managing psychological issues, social and interpsonal situations and relationships, dietary and other physical needs; and the list goes on and on.

Ultimately 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.

Simplifying the discussion of the rising cost of education

If you agree that the most vulenrable deserve access to education, then what do we make of the cost to provide it? While there is nothing simple about education or its rising costs – especially for those who can least afford it – 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, which I’ll explore now in detail.

OER overcome cost problems….and more?

I’m betting we’ve only begun exploring the unique 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 annually.

It’s interesting that OER can indeed save so much money but can it do even more? I believe this is where things become even more interesting and compelling.

OER rely 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 critical mass has gained enough steam to create, this group effort may continue creating, multiplying 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 some of the creation and archiving of OER, such that any topic has a rich and ready-made collection of resources ranked by efficacy.

Ultimately and also going beyond “just” the cost problem, Open sort of means “Super-free” (not to be confused with Super-freak) or “Free+” because not only do you get something for nothing, you get a lot of somethings for nothing. You can retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the resource. It’s sort of like a really good infomercial – you thought you were merely getting those Ginsu knives, but wait there’s more!: you also get five more (uber categories of) things. And yes, all for free.

Open content can be a selfish affair… and that’s OK!

It’s well-documented that open content is a collective activity with lots and lots of participants. What’s interesting are the reasons why this is. Why do people contribute, mostly selflessly, to an effort that by nature gives away these efforts? What’s in it for them, what itch is being scratched?

There are several possible explanations of how cooperation increases. Several interesting ones come from the research of Harvard professor Martin Novak.

Spatial selection – cooperation can increase in a population when cooperators and “defectors” are not equally distributed. Basically if there are clusters of cooperators, they grow cooperation and win out over defectors.

Kin selection – genetically related individuals sacrifice for their kin, thus spreading their genes… even if they themselves perish. I believe for the sake of this discussion, that this can extend beyond genetics (consider an individual’s spouse).

Indirect reciprocity – individuals will aid others based on their reputation. If someone has a reputation for helping others, or is perceived as powerful, it is more likely they will be helped.

What’s interesting is that the last two ideas, which are explanations of behavior, are not altruistic. At times we think of cooperation as altruism. We equate “help” and “teamwork” with being a sort of good guy. In reality, there are powerful positive selfish motivations at play.

Is it okay that one contributes to open content because you feel you’re helping your tribe? Yes.

Is it okay that one contributes to open content because they believe it will help someone that will help, or even notice, them? Yes.

Is it okay that one contributes to open content because it builds their C.V. or resume? Yeah.

Is it okay that one contributes to open content because it makes them feel good? Yup.

Is it okay that one contributes to open content because they might get other business from it (freemium)? Yeppers.

There is a web of economical behaviorism at play here. Open content can be a selfish affair and that’s okay. Because much of our humanity is tied to (non-free agent) strings that compel our behavior. We have needs, wants, and so on and these naturally carry over into motivations to contribute to open content. It is indeed “okay” if it gets more (open) content into the hands of people and those who need it.

I think it’s probably a good idea to consider these motivations and many others when studying open content. Let us be students and observers of people and understand what makes them tick. If nothing else, tapping into this boosts open content further… and probably even makes the contributor happier because those itches are getting scratched.

Open training resources +

I may indeed be motivated to share but what about demotivators to those that receive it for its adoption? Unfortunately a barrier to OER adoption that saps the will to use it is a lack of knowledge about design and intellectual property rights and licensing. Leaving aside other barriers, and issues of policy, economics, even of culture of adopting something new and different – this lack of knowledge about a few specific things continues to haunt me.

There are a couple of reasons this bothers me. One is that Open is a cause, and causes tend to grow and promulgate communities – communities of support, of sharing (Open…) knowledge, training, mentoring. The other reason that I find this barrier’s existence a mental nuisance is that if any field is equipped to tackle such an issue, it is us: the instructional designers, psychologists, technologists and teachers. Where is our solution? (note: it may be hiding, or I may simply be unaware of it…)

I understand from working in the private education arena that this can be difficult to scale. At some point there may need to be some one on one training or consulting. This can be expensive – unless, again, a community of sufficient strength develops.

How does such a supportive community of practice develop? Is it required or is there a better solution? I don’t know. But I think Open is more than just bits, more than artifacts and files. Open has come a long way, but I am left wondering if the human dimension, the learner-centeredness, is being attended to sufficiently.


The community has rallied around another open issue, however, that is again related to cost: this time we turn to value.

There’s always someone willing to do it cheaper – & better?

You don’t get much cheaper than OER – they’re always willing to work for the learner at a bargain price! But cheaper-as-in-better-value better? The Open education community continues to ask itself this question, partially from that hungry place of wanting to prove the value of Open. The answers, delivered by a lot of hard and shrewd work, are encouraging. As always, there remains much more to be answered.


In a nutshell, the small amount of evidence so far seems to indicate that OER are not less effective as instructional resources than traditional ones. As the Open Education Group points out, this means that billions of dollars could potentially be saved without an adverse impact on learning. In reviewing the research I found a few interesting things here.

The first that struck me is that there are somewhat overlooked benefits of OER. These include reflection on the part of the instructors adopting the OER. I would imagine there’d also be an increase in instructional design skills, understanding of the breadth of potential learning resources, etc. Another is the use of OER to test or trial education (freemium?). I can imagine this idea of overlooked benefits being a rich vein to mine; for example, it immediately enters my mind how beneficial OER could be to personalization, both for that content hog of adaptivity as well as enabling multitudinous options for differentiated learning and learner-selected paths.

The thought that comes to my mind the most, though, is this: does it even make sense to compare OER efficacy to that of traditional resources? Typically when comparing a product it is the unique features or source of the product that is compared. OER are simply resources like any other, made special by their licensing and unfettered access… why would they be any more or less effective than traditional resources? They should be equal. Equal, but willingly cheaper!

Exploring open pedagogy

Yet for all the talk of OER saving money and delivering value, I feel like the idea of open education positively influencing pedagogy is more exciting. Being empowered to not just use, but also to do something more, whatever that is (imagination is the limit), is an incredible prospect for learning.

In my experience in higher education course development, even once you decide to pay for a resource you’re still pretty constrained in a variety of ways.

  • There’s red tape and hassle acquiring textbook permissions, rights, etc. with publishers and authors
  • Media acquisition is costly
  • Media development is more costly
  • All of the above is a huge pain-in-the-butt and there’s also a lot of hassle and time sunk coordinating all of it. These complexities create multiple types of costs – not just financial.

Considering that last point reminds me of Elon Musk’s SpaceX model vs. disposable rockets: most rockets are used once and then thrown away, with the next one being painstakingly assembled, versus SpaceX’s model of using a rocket, landing, inspecting/fueling then re-launching again. OER make a lot of sense just based on following the SpaceX model alone.


Yet moving beyond these constraints is only part of the good stuff. So much of the open learning I’m seeing that’s being imagined and engineered is inspiring.

  • Federated Wikis are a fantastic way to build knowledge based on the inverse of the Wiki model, where consensus is reached first, at the expense of creating different knowledge, followed by fragmented opinions. Federated Wikis build knowledge as a more collaborative effort, beginning with fragmented opinions that build organically into something more.
  • Choral explanations do something similar. Like Quora, many people answer each individual question so that learners can learn bits and pieces from various answers that tackle the issue in different ways (ever found multiple answers or recipes better than just one?)… and then preserve the knowledge and pass it on—growing and accumulating answers—to future learners.
  • Murder, Madness and Mayhem was an early coordinated effort to “bring a selection of articles on Latin American literature to featured article status.” University students learned as they wrote and improved the articles, which now remain as long-lasting artifacts that others can learn from. This is also an excellent example of a renewable assessment.

A common denominator that catches my attention here is the Wiki nature of these ideas. A wiki is “a website that provides collaborative modification of its content and structure.” A wiki needs a degree of Openness, and Open learning benefits from doing and sharing, so it would seem this is an obvious match made in heaven.

It is true that OER can be made alone, though they must then be shared. But creating OER collaboratively opens a new path: a resource can be created for others to learn from, and even the act of its creation can be a learning opportunity. Truly a win-win-win.


I began by discussing the Other, who I argue we are beholden to serve and care for.

Wounded Syrian Kid Omran Daqneesh

Perhaps if one does not buy this, we could all agree that in the least the world is better for all as more are educated. And here enters the argument for open education: free, extensible, multipliable, and able to morph into new helpful pedagogies. We’ve discussed how these are not merely lofty ideals, but tangible, evidenced realities of our day. A modern Food Bank of learning.

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