Are Open Educational Resources at the Tipping Point or the Tripping Point?

There are so many crises in education today, that to explore the tipping point for OER (Open Educational Resources) might seem to have little relevance in light of the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind and the $4.3 billion being awarded to States in the Race to the Top. However, as the 2010 Horizon Report, published by the New Media Consortium, points out, the OER movement is on the cusp of hitting prime time this year, changing traditional notions of the teaching and learning process across the globe.

The term "open educational resources" was first adopted at UNESCO's 2002 Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. UNESCO helped to define OER as educational materials and resources "offered freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses to re-mix, improve and redistribute." OERs include learning content as well as tools to create and share the content.

Today "open" is becoming more mainstream as several states are taking "open" seriously. In May, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the first-in-the-nation initiative to vet open textbooks for use in California's public schools. While packed with good intentions, the project became an initiative for free rather than open textbooks. Further development of the plan is expected, so hopefully the community will encourage the governor to extend his call for open textbooks. In Illinois, Sen. Richard Durbin introduced federal legislation that would provide grants to support textbook authors who want to make their work available as open textbooks. In 2009, Texas enacted legislation that would allow schools to adopt open digital resources, including textbooks.

These initiatives are powerful because they are bringing educational resources to some of the poorest regions of the world while those in the U.S. are challenging traditional models on how educational materials are developed and distributed. But these projects are innovative experiments. As 2010 unfolds, keep an eye on the following projects to see which advance the OER innovation and which falter without a viable business model:

Curriki founded in 2004 by Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems is building a community to provide open content creation and collaboration. Currently they are establishing partnerships to create Curriki-Arabic to bring Curriki to the Arabic speaking world. With over 220,000,000 Arabic speakers across the globe and a widely recognized lack of affordable Arabic instructional materials, this project is worth watching as it explores the localization of a global open source community.

Open High School of Utah is the first high school created to offer a full open source curricula. The program is designed around a powerful learning management system that captures data about the effectiveness of all aspects of the Open Curriculum - both educational materials and assessments. The teacher and the student immediately know if a specific concept needs to be presented more clearly or if there's a problem with a test item. The data can then be used to help further refine the Open Curriculum. The end result is a highly customized curriculum developed to meet the student needs in real-time. This is worth watching as it uses open content to drive a data-driven and highly customized learning experience for both the teacher and the student.

CK-12 Foundation is a non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the cost of textbooks using an open-content web-based collaborative model. This project is worth watching as it challenges the traditional textbook distribution and development model for high -quality educational content.

Higher Ed
MITOpenCourseware is a web-based repository of virtually all of the MIT course content. It is open and available to the world. As the pioneer in higher education OER projects, this is worth watching as it explores it's own sustainability model.

AgShare is being built to provide free and open access to agricultural education material. Michigan State University researchers will use a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help African educators improve agricultural practices and build a sustainable economy. AgShare Open Education Resources is an 18-month pilot project. African educational will create a virtual hub of resources and curriculum for Master of Science degrees in agriculture, with areas of emphasis in livestock, crops and agribusiness. This project could possibly change the way knowledge is shared in some of the hardest to reach areas in the world, certainly a goal worth watching.

FlatWorldKnowledge offers free online textbooks to students that are open for professors to modify and customize for their courses. The online version is free but students pay a low $30 for a printed copy of the book. This project is worth watching as it is testing a new business model for open content.

Peer 2 Peer University - The mission of P2PU is to leverage the power of the Internet and social networks to enable communities to support learning for each other. P2PU combines open educational resources and structured courses, to offer high-quality low-cost education opportunities. It is run and governed by volunteers. P2PU has a committed community of core volunteers in tech, outreach, sustainability, research, and course organizing. This project is worth watching as we evaluate the power of communities to manage online teaching and learning.

Mozilla Drumbeat: Long Term Vision is creating a community to make sure the Internet is still open, participatory, decentralized and public 100 years from now. The project is being supported and funded by the Mozilla Foundation. This is worth mentioning as it supports innovation in the open space with relatively small amounts of funding.

DiscoverEd is an experimental project from Creative Commons, which is developing scalable search and discovery tools to find open educational resources on the Web. Metadata, including the license and subject information available are identified through this search tool. The project is collaborating with other OER projects to improve global search and discovery capabilities. This is worth watching as it is driving the aggregation of content and developing tools to help users discover the rich repositories of OER content quickly and efficiently.

Each of these projects has the potential to change the way we share knowledge and define learning. In aggregate, they are very powerful and are creating tipping points -- "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable (Gladwell)." And each are the outgrowth of the pioneering community created by Wikipedia--a community that has set the bar for social networking around content.

But we need to be cautious. OER projects, while providing free and open instructional resources, are not free to operate.

Many projects have failed or are seeing their support reduced due to lack of funding. It was recently reported that MIT Open Courseware was exploring ways to cut costs in light of the economic downturn. The Sakai project will probably no longer receive funding from the Mellon Foundation as they are closing the grant program that has funded this work. And Utah State University closed its OpenCourseWare project due to lack of funding. The bottom line is that unless OER projects are designed to become sustainable through the sale of products or services, they will cease to exist. While OER communities seek to invert the existing business models through community engagement, this doesn't pay the electricity bills.

So as OER projects expand and attract loyal communities, they will inevitably reach a plateau, one that will drive the community to determine how to extend and support their impact. Hopefully the new innovations in the OER space, some of which are described in the blog, will find models that work. Without a viable model that produces revenue and community financial support, the tipping point could become the tripping point.