What research on OER cannot tell us

I love reading research on OER. That so many researchers across so many institutional contexts are actively exploring issues related to cost, outcomes, use, and perceptions makes me happy. And that OER research continues to get more nuanced, more rigorous, more transparent, and more critical makes me happier still.

Yet, as powerful as quantitative research (especially local studies) can be in bolstering the institutional case for investing in OER it is worth reminding ourselves periodically that this approach is limited in what it can tell us. Yes, research tells us that students will perform the same or better when they are assigned OER in place of commercial textbooks. Yes, it tells us that these gains accrue in favour of marginalized students. Yes, it affirms OER adoption as a student enrollment, persistence, and success strategy. But as with all educational research, it can only measure those elements of teaching and learning that can be commodified, standardized, and quantified. Lorde’s warning that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house applies to the neoliberal university.

For example, institutional data can easily tell you about the average GPA of course sections that assign OER vs. commercial textbooks. But it cannot tell you about how OER adoption makes a student feel less poor in the eyes of his peers. Analytics can tell you about how many times a student visited a particular page in an open textbook, but it cannot reveal to you that she did so because her instructor took advantage of the permission to adapt the book and changed the names in the examples in the text to reflect the diversity of the classroom. It cannot tell you that the student repeatedly revisited that page because she finally saw herself represented in the text. Similarly, research can tell you about factors that inhibit or promote faculty adoption of OER, but it cannot easily assess a re-invigoration in pedagogy as a faculty member reconnects with the values that led them into education in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong–I am not suggesting that we abandon quantitative research on OER. Far from it. But what I am suggesting is that the variables that can most be easily measured don’t communicate the whole story. Or even perhaps the most important elements of the story. After all, the more you focus on counting the number of cresting waves while peering through a periscope, the less likely you will experience the beauty of the ocean.

Photo by Joshua Dewey on Unsplash

One thought on “What research on OER cannot tell us

  • This resonates with I what I just wrote in a piece to be published later this year about the development of SABIER’s approach to supporting open educational resources –

    ‘An open system of office design was also occurring in the mid ‘70s. The open office system is still in use in lots of workplaces and has seen many variations. The practice of creating electronic white noise or noise masking with systems of ceiling mounted speakers has survived much longer than the open classroom structure. The company I worked for was a designer of some of the first noise masking systems. I remember vividly the time I worked on the noise masking system for the Univac testing facility which had an ambient noise level that was well above the prescribed noise masking levels. It was a futile search for quality using a new technology. It was also the facility where Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, worked. Searching for quality is an important theme of Pirsig’s work. Pirsig and I both reported to the same director of engineering at Univac. Pirsig’s work is a precursor to open pedagogy if we look at open pedagogy and open practice as a new system of education the way that Pirsig looked at systematic thinking.

    “ to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.”

    Open pedagogy and open practice fundamentally restructures the system of education because for so long education has been dependent on the notion that the content is sacrosanct like a bible; it was published, and the publishers had the keys to the knowledge, and teachers and students couldn’t copy, modify, rearrange, remix or redistribute the content on their own. Open licensing of content changes all of that. Openly licensed content puts the teacher and the student in charge of the learning.’

    It is that subtle but fundamental restructuring of the system that makes adoption of open educational resources, open pedagogy, and an open source way of an organization being that so difficulty.


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