Donuts, OER, and the Paradox of Choice

You may have noticed that as of the date of this post, CrowdED Learning’s website has been developed on Google Sites with a note on the homepage indicating our intent to eventually move to a more permanent home. As a result of having not yet selected a full-suite website development service, this blog currently is being written on Blogger, Google’s integrated blogging platform of choice. (Oh, about apologies if the font sizes on this post are all over the map. I may start a separate blog on why I hate Blogger.) As of this post, I have yet to choose the following: a website building service, a “final” design template, a service for hosting the website, a donation management service, a CRM, and countless other selections that I need to make in order to ramp up CrowdED Learning’s efforts. Why? For most of these decisions, there is a seemingly endless sea of options; and, because there are so many options, I repeatedly find myself grappling with the paradox of choice.

I don’t know if he coined the term “paradox of choice,” but I use this term in reference to Barry Schwartz’s famous TED Talk on the concept. (Note: His talk is over 12 years old, coming before the world of smart phones, social media, and the deluge of choices these have introduced into our daily lives, yet it seems to be even more relevant today than it was in 2005). In Schwartz’s talk, he walks through a line of thinking that ends with this statement regarding the dogma of western society: “The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.”

What he notes, however, is limitless choice can often be anything but freeing, because when we find ourselves with a sea of seemingly endless options, it is natural to wonder before, during, and after making a decision if said decision is the best one. The more options one has, the more likely one is to be tentative in the process of making a selection, and this state of mind can carry on even after the fact by way of wondering if a different selection would have been better…a perpetual state of simply wondering if one should have buyer’s remorse. So crushing is this paradox that, in many cases, the “choice” is often put on hold indefinitely, because the weight of decision-making when due diligence feels like an impossibility can be paralyzing.

As I’m learning in the world of nonprofit startup, rare is the day that I’m not confronted with the paradox of choice, usually multiple times. Now, it isn't that I had to go down the road of starting up an organization to become familiar with this concept. I mean, try selecting amongst a donut or a cruller or a Bismarck or a Biscoff pocket when you are attempting to be "healthy" by limiting yourself to just one and you are faced with a case of complete deliciousness…

More life-impacting was the choice I recently faced when, having left my job in May of this year, I had to select a health insurance plan. (Although I suppose donuts impact health, and the choice to not choose a donut at all is always there, meaning this choice could also be considered life-impacting.) If memory serves me correctly, the most choices I’ve ever had for employer-provided health insurance plans has been three. This limitation actually was empowering to me as the decision-maker, because the level of confidence I could have in making a selection was quite high since there was less room for second-guessing with so few options. However, once I was in charge of purchasing my own insurance, I found myself presented with a bevy of options, coupled with a range of factors that had to be weighed when evaluating each, such as price and what services were included. To this day, I could not tell you much about the plan I settled with after a not-so-exhaustive evaluation process, other than it is a “Silver” plan, reasonably priced, and I hope I don’t have to use it this year.

But be it business decisions, donuts, health insurance plans—or salad dressing or 401Ks, as Schwartz discusses in his TED Talk—the notion that choice equates to freedom and happiness can be somewhat of a misnomer, and in fact it often can lead to increased dissatisfaction and bewilderment.

So how does this relate to CrowdED Learning? Perhaps the biggest barrier to more widespread adoption of OER is rooted in the paradox of choice. In Babson Survey Research Group’s 2017 report, Opening the Textbook, instructors were asked what factors prevented them from adopting OER for their courses. Nearly half of all respondents indicated “too hard to find what I need” as being a critical barrier. I tend to believe this is a bit low, particularly after a recent search I made for resources to use in a proof of concept I’m developing which yielded a not-so-manageable number of options:

This number simply indicates the quantity of options, and has NOTHING to do with resource quality or relevance. And, while there are a number of dedicated open learning resource repositories that provide tools to help filter down choices based on user criteria, there still seem to be too many options to sift through and evaluate. Additionally, while OER repositories encourage users to upload resources they want to make freely available to others, there is little regulation or discernment as to what makes a “quality” resource, so sometimes even filtered content searches can end up looking something like this:
(CC 2.0 BY) Kevin Utting

When thinking about why OER have had such limited adoption, particularly within adult education, I tend to believe that because there is such an overwhelming amount of content out there, sometimes the choice to not make a choice is the easiest; so instructors stick with that which they are familiar rather than investing time into an often futile search to find resources that hold the potential to be far more engaging and impactful for learners and, oh, that other cool thing about OER…are free.

At CrowdED Learning, we believe crowdsourcing our collective expertise might be a way to help overcome the paradox of choice when it comes to selecting engaging and effective free and open educational resources for adult learners. That’s why as time goes on and we build out our infrastructure, we intend to call upon educators, subject matter experts, and anyone else who is looking to make an impact on open education to help us identify, curate, and disseminate the best freely available learning content and resources that are out there. Our goal is to promote more widespread adoption of OER and free resources by making them more readily available and approachable to learners and instructors.

By the way, today I selected the orange old-fashioned donut. And I can happily say this guy does not have ONE BIT of remorse in this decision…well, at least in terms of taste bud satisfaction. I’m now off to the gym, because I don’t want to put myself in a position where I need to figure out how my health insurance plan works…whichever one it is I chose.

To learn more and stay up to date on our goings-on, please take a gander at and sign up to stay in touch, volunteer your expertise, or make a recommendation. We look forward to hearing from you!


  1. Great post, Jeff! I also think it important to be sure that teachers have guidance on the evaluation of OER, like introduction to rubrics from Achieve or Quality Matters. That way the resources they promote have the potential to be relevant for a broader range of learners than just those that were in his/her class.

    1. Agreed! (And sorry for the delay in responding.) We need to be sure the notion of scalability is considered both in evaluation of existing and creation of new OER.


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