Strength in Numbers: OER and Trust in the Digital Age

This is part 3 of a 4-part series discussing barriers to adoption of Open Educational Resources within Adult Education. Part 1 discussed issues of overcrowding. Part 2 discussed issues around the need for relevance. 

Last week I finished my final conference of 2017, the National College Transitions Network conference in Rhode Island, cramming in the last bit of information-gathering I can before we get moving on some exciting projects for CrowdED Learning. In total, that marks 19 conferences for the year. For someone who really prefers to be a homebody, that’s a lot of time on the road. 

Fortunately, I actually do enjoy going to conferences. Beyond providing the opportunity to meet fascinating people and learn innovative new approaches to education, they also afford me the chance to explore new cities to find quirky coffee shops, great local breweries, and unique places that capture the essence wherever I am.

For me, when exploring new places, half the fun is in the find…I like nothing better than making that one-of-a-kind discovery that makes me feel like I’ve unearthed some hidden gem. Discovery of such finds typically entails conducting various Google searches to identify the “best coffee shops” or “best breweries and cocktail bars.” Using whatever evaluation technique-du-jour I’m employing on a particular trip, I’ll make some choices based on various search results to select which establishment(s) will be my destination. 

Regardless of whether I’m using Google Maps, Trip Advisor, or some other tool for discovering venues, my selection process almost always employs looking at the number of positive ratings an establishment has and, along with that, the number of people who have chosen to rate it. The more people have rated a place, the more likely I am to actually trust a high rating. It’s simply a matter of strength in numbers. 

Trust in the Age of Technology
When it comes to making choices today, it’s amazing how much technology has impacted the way in which we establish trust. More and more, we rely on our networks and various online ranking tools to essentially crowdsource much of our day-to-day decision-making. Trying to choose a movie to watch tonight? We check out how it fared on Rotten Tomatoes. Looking for things to do in a new city? We launch Trip Advisor to scroll through rankings of activities and restaurants. Looking for advice on a big new purchase? We leverage our social media networks to solicit recommendations from friends for products or services. Even when we aren’t actively researching or soliciting advice or recommendations, our minds are slowly being made up for us by way of seeing what activities our friends are doing or talking about on social media. 

And, if we think back ten…even five years ago, it’s hard to imagine any of us would hop into a stranger’s car for a ride instead of a taxi or rent a room from someone we had never met as opposed to staying in a hotel. But, over time, as we’ve seen more and more people adopting innovative ways to travel on the cheap, we today find ourselves Lyfting and AirBnB’ing our ways through the world without a second thought. We trust because the crowd trusts. 

There are three scales of consideration at play when we look at the various dynamics of how following crowds has given rise to the trust economy: volume, connectivity, and uniqueness. Volume relates to the number of positive rankings something has. Take looking for a recipe. If there are two recipes for the same dish, both rated 4.7 stars, but one has 500 reviews and another has just 5 reviews, we are more likely to try out the former because more people have given it a positive review. 

Connectivity relates to how much we feel we can relate to the person(s) providing the recommendation. For many of us, just a handful of positive reviews from friends or from people whose opinions we typically share or value engenders more trust than hundreds of reviews from strangers. Prior to the gazillion apps by which we have available for finding new things, such personal recommendations were pretty much all we had to go by. 

Uniqueness relates to our desire to partake in unique experiences. During one of my last trips with my father we used AirBnB to stay at some really great places with some pretty quirky hosts, where we were willing to sacrifice typical creature comforts of travel for the adventure of staying in more interesting, unique venues. (I was actually surprised my father was even willing to go along with it; though, I still couldn’t convince him to stay in this schoolbus in the woods of New Hampshire.) Our ability to trust was based on an evaluation that factored in uniqueness, perceived value, and reviews from previous visitors, the latter being the most critical factor. 

Trust and Our Relationship with Open Content—It’s Complicated
While this notion of open trust has significantly influenced our decision-making related to daily activities and consumerism, our relationship with trust as it applies to open content, information, and learning resources has been a bit more complicated. Take, for example, Wikipedia. As someone who has spent the past 15 years in educational publishing, I can tell you it remains a widely-accepted industry rule that Wikipedia never be considered a valid source for content. 

While I understand this in theory, I find it to be less and less warranted over time. Wikipedia is a continuously updated and self-improving crowdsourced library of information populated predominantly by experts who aren’t paid but are simply eager to share their expertise with the world. Unlike much of what we read today (including this blog!), each article provides source listings at the end so you have the ability to corroborate the information with “valid” sources. And there are tools in place for folks to question, investigate, and rule on the validity of any information included within articles, as well as enforced authoring limitations on popular articles to prevent any content “vandalism.” Finally, because it is crowdsourced, the content within has the ability to continuously improve.

Interestingly enough, while we see continued skepticism in our ability to trust information from willing experts on sources such as Wikipedia, recent current events have shown we often are more than willing to trust any and all information that comes from our social networks. So open is this trust that we are even willing to indiscriminately broadcast (or “narrowcast”) out information by way of liking or sharing news articles, information, and stories, regardless of the source or how clearly subjective the content reads. In the wake of the 2016 elections, we were served a nationwide lesson as to the dangers of blindly accepting information from such sources, which ultimately has given rise to the notion of “fake news” and led to lawyers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter being called to speak before Congress about the impact content from their platforms impacts things such as, oh, voting for President. Yet, this is nothing new. The nature of these platforms is to promote content that is paid for, and this has severely been blurring the line between factual and advertorial content for years. And, the more popular content is made by promotion within the crowd, the more willing we are to trust it. 

Regardless of its perceived “validity” in various academic circles, Wikipedia certainly has had its impact. Encyclopedia Britannica printed its last edition in 2010, after over 230 years in circulation. This came only 9 years after the birth of Wikipedia. 
(Britannica case image source: Victorgrigas - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Trust and Learning: Are we willing to follow the crowd?
So, what is our level of trust when it comes to OER? Studies indicate that, similar to Wikipedia, the element of trust is a barrier to OER adoption when considering the level of quality of the resource. And, in this instance, I would readily second the notion that many of these trust issues are completely warranted. Even if someone has sifted through the myriad resources that might be available for a particular topic and found something promising, there are still a number of questions as to whether or not that particular resource is worth using. Who created the resource? What is their background and level of expertise? How do I know all the content within the resource is accurate? Has it been vetted or evaluated by someone else? How easy or difficult is it to actually implement? 

While OER resource repositories such as OER Commons and Curriki have rating systems and provide the ability to create groups that allow for more organized sets of content vetted by group owners, these tools do not have the sophistication of platforms such as Wikipedia to continuously improve by way of crowdsourced community involvement. Additionally, there really isn’t much in the way of screening what resources are uploaded onto most OER repositories, so much of the content that is added has had little in the way of review prior to being made available for public consumption. 

At CrowdED Learning, we see great promise in examining what we know about how decision-making is impacted by crowdsourcing and open rating and evaluation systems and applying these principles to develop protocols for curating, creating, and continuously improving free and open educational content through continuous feedback and improvement from practitioners and users. We happen to believe there is power to be harnessed by way of the crowd, and this can very meaningfully impact the way in which we develop, organize, implement, and share effective and engaging free and open educational content.

Over the next few months we are going to investigate this topic by asking educators, instructional designers, learners, and subject matter experts to weigh in and provide insights. If you feel so inclined, we would love to have you join our mailing list to stay in touch with our goings on and indicate your interest in getting involved. 

We are incredibly eager to start exploring the notion of crowdsourcing and OER curation and evaluation. After all, we’ve kinda staked our identity on this whole idea… 

Want to join the crowd and be part of the solution? 
Please check out www.crowdedlearning.orgThere, 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!


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