Cutting the Chord: Cable, OER, and the Need for Relevance

This post is part 2 of a four-part series discussing barriers to more widespread adoption of Open Educational Resources in Adult Education. Part 1 focused on the role overcrowding plays in making selecting resources difficult. 

If you haven't heard the news, cable TV is dying a slow, painful death. I'm honestly not sorry to hear this...I've been a proud accomplice to this death-by-a-million-less-subscribers-per-year trend for a number of years. That said, it admittedly was difficult giving up such riveting channels as CSPAN3 (I didn't know there was a CSPAN2) and thought-provoking programming such as My Cat from Hell
For years, cable TV providers were able to cruise along with complete inflexibility, customers finding themselves locked into contracts that increasingly included loads of content nobody really wanted. As people caught on to the absurdity of paying obscene amounts for a service in which you use only a sliver of the content to which you have access, new models for providing programming in more of an a la carte, less-is-more format sprung up. Today, there are a number of subscriber service options that are much more tailored to consumers based on viewer type and content interests, including Netflix, Hulu, and Playstation Vue. And this model continues to catch on (and be tinkered with) at an increasingly rapid pace. Why? Those million people a year who are "cutting the chord" are more concerned about relevance than volume

Now, if you've wandered the halls of the educational publishing world for the past decade and a half as I did, it's not very difficult to draw some straightforward connections between these trends in cable TV and what is wrong with a number of current educational content delivery models. (More on that in a future post.) And, in my new life within the world of open and free educational resources, I think there are similar connections to be made when we talk about barriers to more widespread adoption. The problem is there are legacy models in place that plague both for-pay and for-free curriculum and educational product delivery, which leaves those of us in the world of instruction and learning still waiting for the Netflix or Hulu of education to emerge. 

Innovation Actually Is Happening
Having recently been to the OpenEd Conference in October, it was very clear that much of the movement in the open education space has been geared toward higher education. To me, this makes perfect sense. After all, higher education publishing is a business-to-consumer market (as opposed to K-12 and adult education, where purchasing most often is business-to-business), and consumer markets tend to have the ability and need to be more nimble and reactive to consumer demands. Over the years within the higher education market, consumers (students) have become increasingly disgruntled at having to pay rising costs for textbooks that oftentimes are not being used all that frequently within their courses. In addition to this, there is growing scrutiny over the value of a four-year degree that now plagues higher education providers. And as is the case with course materials, the very selections both of a higher education institution and a degree program are both consumer choices as well. 

Out of these consumer pain points we have seen the rise over the past decade of online course and degree offerings such as those from EdXUdacity, and Coursera, and low-cost and free print and online text- and ebook providers such as Lumen LearningFlatWorldKnowledge, and OpenStax. In addition, by way of low-cost and free learning management systems such as Canvas and Moodle, universities and colleges have begun developing their own open content and courses; courses that can be shared, remixed, and redistributed within and across institutions.

All of these are welcome and exciting new options, and not only do they work to address the issues of cost and flexibility, these ongoing experiments also represent critical steps toward democratizing education for all. That being said, because most of these new models are aimed at the higher education system, there are some glaring issues that arise when we try to apply these same approaches to adult education. While this may be a gross oversimplification, when considering the perspectives of learners and instructors within adult education, I believe the most fundamental of these issues is a lack of relevance. In regard to delivery of open and free learning resources, I'm using the term "relevance" as it relates to two simple questions: 1) What content is being delivered? and 2) How it is being delivered? 

The What: Course-Based vs. Skill-Based
Higher education courses are structured around a number of assumptions that do not necessarily apply to adult education. First, learners enter the course with similar pre-requisite knowledge and there is an expectation they should be able to progress with limited or no need for remediation. Second, there are fixed start and end dates (i.e., semester or trimester) to the course, to which learners have committed to remain enrolled for the duration. In addition to these assumptions of learner type and course structure, each course is part of a sequence of both required and optional courses that are clearly outlined as part of a plan that leads the learner toward a single goal: earning a degree. 

The notion of a start-to-finish course of this nature is not the reality within many adult education settings. Learners in adult education come from vastly different educational backgrounds and learning levels and often have a range of different goals—meaning their on-ramps and off-ramps in and out of formal education are all over the map. This same inconsistency holds true for the amount of time learners are enrolled within a formal education program. To support this widely varied learner dynamic, adult educators have become very adept at pulling the lessons and activities that work best for their learners from a variety of sources, ideally based on each learner's particular skill needs. Because of this, it is almost a guarantee when you walk into an adult educational facility you will see bookshelves lined with instructional materials from a variety of different publishers. Likewise, if you log into a student computer in these same buildings, you will likely see desktop shortcuts to learning software and applications from a number of different sources as well. 

The specific skills that are needed by any particular learner within a formal adult education setting often are dictated by the tests students must take either a) for providers to demonstrate learner gains (and, therefore, receive funding), or b) for learners to earn their high school equivalency. In tandem with these academic skill requirements, legislation now requires that learners must also be developing skills aligned to attainable career pathways within a region based on real-time labor market needs. 

With such prescribed, required learning outcomes yet no real assurance of the duration of learner commitment, adult education provision tends to be more skill-based, granular, and streamlined. Because of this, learning plans most often are tailored to the particular skills for which a learner must achieve mastery based on their individual goals, as opposed to being delivered by way of full-scale courses. This limits the applicability of much of the aforementioned course delivery innovation happening within higher education. Unfortunately, while there are learning resource repositories that provide stand-alone, standards-based learning resources more well-suited to skill-based delivery, these repositories tend to be plagued by overcrowding, making it a tedious process to locate and evaluate quality content that effectively meets the needs of learners (as was discussed last week). 

The How: Square Pegs, Round Holes
Encouragingly enough, there are some great free (but not open...please refer to this overview which outlines the difference) learning platforms such as GCF and Khan Academy that contain nicely organized, relevant course content which can be individualized to the skills needed by a particular learner. As educators, however, we must recognize the fact that individualization refers not only to tailoring content to the skills a learner needs, but also to making sure the mode of instruction matches the style of learning that best suits each particular learner. In other words, unlike the winter hat I pulled out of my clothes bin this past weekend in response to the sudden drops in temperature here in Chicago, the manner in which a particular skill or concept is taught cannot be one-size-fits-all if it is to be effective to a wide range of leaners. 

So, while there are these promising, skill-based learning platforms that are free to learners, one major problem with these offerings—and, if I'm being honest, most of the proprietary online learning platforms offered by publishers—is they provide a relatively singular instructional format for all of their content. More concerning is the fact that in many cases the instructional format these platforms use is modeled after one that did not work the first time around for many adult learners. What this means is, if a learner needs content delivered in a way that is more akin to his learning style, or if he simply has grown tired of the sound of Sal Khan's voice explaining math concepts (no offense meant to Sal Khan), then the single, fixed mode of instruction typically offered by these of all-in-one platforms may not be well-suited for that learner. (As someone currently enrolled in a Code Academy course for which I as an educator have MAJOR issues with format of and level of detail within the instruction, this one really hits home at the moment.)

Establishing Relevant Models both for OER Content and Delivery
In order to increase relevance to learners and inspire more widespread adoption of some of the great, free and dynamic learning resources that are out there, I believe we need to do a better job at establishing models that follow emerging trends in TV and music. Namely, we need to increase relevance for what content is delivered to learners by providing more a la carte alignment of instruction to their individual skill needs, and for how content is delivered to the learner based on queueing up content that best matches their learning preferences.

At CrowdED Learning, we believe this is something that can be achieved through the careful curation and alignment of content—in particular direct-to-learner content—to the recognized standards frameworks within Adult Education. By working together to identify the most effective OER and free content available and aligning it to standards, we can establish more granular, skill-based learning resource playlists (the whataligned to each standard that include content from a variety of sources presented in a range of instructional formats (the how). By doing this, learners can be directed more efficiently toward engaging free online content, from a variety of sources, that is tailored both to their skill needs and their most effective style of learning. 

How do we get there? Well, we are hard at work experimenting and asking a lot of questions of educators and learners to try to figure that one out. However, we also know it is going to take the collective knowledge and expertise of a lot of people to help get us there. With this in mind, over the next few months we are going to be recruiting and forming volunteer committees to start working together to identify and address some of these core barriers to more widespread adoption, with work starting in early 2018. Want to join the crowd and be part of the solution? Please check out There, you can learn more and sign up to volunteer your expertise, stay in touch, or make a recommendation. We look forward to hearing from you!