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.