Head in the Clouds, Head in the Sand: OER, Culture Change, and the Fear of Monsters

This is the last of a four-part series from CrowdED Learning discussing barriers to adoption of Open Educational Resources within Adult Education. Part 1 focused on issues of overcrowding. Part 2 focused on issues around the need for relevance. Part 3 focused on issues related to establishing trust. This fourth installment addresses the issue of resistance to culture change and the threat that brings to the status quo.

The other day I was hoping to have a software developer friend join me for Friday after-work drinks with a graphic designer friend to discuss a proof of concept we are developing. (Yes...things actually are happening...and I have really, really great friends!!) Unfortunately, he had a prior commitment...one for which he was super excited: he was going to see Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Remember that band? The one who had that one song that was cool that one summer? Where every time you heard it start playing on the radio you would patiently wait for the part where you could scream along "Bittersweet!!!! Sweet something blah blah bitter bitter something blah sweet?" Yah, you do. 

Well, caught up in a sudden desire to time-travel back to my long-departed youth of the 90s, I checked and saw there was a Saturday show as well...super cheap, and just a few blocks from my house. So I cast out to Facebook to see if I could find anyone who might want to join...

It appears Todd and his monster friends evidently aren't all that "big" anymore :(

Resigned to the fact I was not going to find anyone to join me to see a concert I admittedly wasn't all that interested in seeing, I instead invited a friend over for dinner. 
At some point over the course of dinner (Instant Pot plug: a delicious lasagna perfectly cooked in a springform pan in just 20 minutes!), my friend noted how much he liked the music playing in the background (so much for the lasagna). I explained it was my clever and creatively named Spotify playlist entitled...wait for it..."Dinner Playlist"—a selection of over a hundred songs I've compiled over time while listening to random acoustic stations...adding to it each time I hear a song that makes me think, "I like this song...it's really chill and relaxing."

The funny thing about this playlist is despite having listened to it umpteen million times, I cannot for the life of me name a single artist on it, even though there are some artists from whom more than a handful of songs are included. While this may speak to my being a master of obliviousness, it also speaks to something the advent of streaming music has ushered in: a world in which we are the drivers, not the passengers, of our musical experience. Where at one time we obsessed over collecting cassettes, CDs, mp3s....whatever...of the limited artists to which we were exposed (i.e., Big Head Todd and the Monsters) by way of musical gatekeepers (namely, record labels and radio stations), we now have the the wonder of streaming music, which allows for limitless exploration and exposure to music that continuously adjusts—be it based on our indicated preferences and previous selections, or based on the real-time selections we make in accordance with our current listening mood. Technology has altered how we experience music—a listener-driven journey for which we have the option of actively or passively setting our destination, and along the way allows us to discover new music of interest and choose to curate that which best fits our personal preferences.

Culture Change and Monsters

I'm fairly certain I'm not exposing anything new here in saying this shift obviously has had adverse effects on the music industry, and the model is one that continuously is challenged and adjusts based on new technologies and new ideas. To get to the point we are at now required a massive culture shift; but the result has been a consumer-positive change in how we are exposed to new music, how we pay for music, and how we now have the ability to access pretty much any music we want at any time in any way. 

This thing is now 16 years old. 
If you look back, it took over a decade of incremental changes to get here, pushed forward by new technologies and new approaches to how music is distributed, all the while encumbered by a music industry that naturally was inclined to cling to legacy distribution and revenue models that didn't jive with these new approaches. The rise of digital music created a monster (no relation to Todd and his bandmates) for the music industry...one that challenged their longstanding control over what music we heard and how we accessed it.

Looking at the shift en masse, what ultimately changed is that the delivery of the content became more important than the source. This opened up opportunities for limitless smaller, up-and-coming artists to get their music out there to listeners, and freed listeners from being bound to a finite selection of options carefully chosen and marketed to us by a few major record labels. We went from a model where limited options made Big Head Todd a household name (and one I somehow still remember), to a model today where on a daily basis I am able to stream an endless string of new songs I like far better than "Bittersweet," yet have no idea who actually is singing it. 

As a consumer, I feel I am empowered and get real value in being able to listen to whatever music fits my real-time preferences, with the added bonus of always having the option to queue up my tried and true faves. 

There is a lot to be learned by
 educational content providers from the 21st-century evolution of the music industry. Like music, where I'm now able to curate my own playlists based on whatever works for the mood I presently find myself, learners and instructors should be able to assemble together content of any type in real time based on whatever is best-suited for a particular learner or instructor—factoring in what needs to be learned and in what setting the learning is taking place—regardless of its source. Source does not matter; delivery does. In the end...what's best for the learner is, quite frankly, whatever works

Like the music industry, getting to this point in education will take a seismic shift, and making such a shift requires compromise, relinquishing our notions of the way things are "supposed to be," and accepting there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to helping a learner master a particular skill or competency. Unfortunately, we currently live in a world where rather than working together, the factions of paid educational content providers and proponents of OER mostly gawk at one another as diametrically opposing forces; monsters to be slain as opposed to partners in revolutionizing educational content delivery.

But I believe there is hope. Like music, learning can also evolve to become a journey driven by learners and instructors—where solutions are encountered and continuously adjusted based on context and user preferences, not based on something rigidly prescribed by a publisher (or OER provider for that matter). Having spent time in both the publisher and the OER worlds, I happen to know that—just like Todd and his buddies in 2018—the perceived monsters on either side aren't really all that big. And they really aren't all that bad, either. They just need to be understood. 

Head in the Clouds—We are Better than the Monster

As an aging wannabe millennial, I share the passion of OER purists in dreaming of a world where OER can reach their potential of truly democratizing education by equalizing the ability for all to access quality educational materials. There is so much great content out there, willingly developed by dedicated educators and experts who share a mission of getting meaningful and effective content into the hands of learners and instructors. However, as noted throughout the previous blogs in this series, there are a number of barriers that stand in the way of more widespread adoption...most significant of which is the intensive time it takes to find, evaluate, adjust, and implement resources in a way that is meaningful and effective. 

Yet, from what I have seen, many in the world of OER have their heads in the clouds—their well-intended passion for what they believe should be crowding out consideration for the actual realities faced by instructors and learners in regard to time.
"Free....free...everything!! Free!!!"
CC BY 2.0 Ian Burt

This is something that hits home for me. As a teacher fresh out of school and ready to change the world, I loved developing and sharing self-developed curriculum and activities. I strived to challenge my students with rich and authentic critical thinking experiences I felt were far better than those offered by our textbooks. However, this love ultimately became what equated to a second full-time job for me. At some point, my competing passions for teaching and for developing curriculum necessitated me choosing one or the other in order to maintain my sanity; there simply weren't enough hours in the day. So, I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom to go into educational publishing.

From this experience, I'm acutely aware of the obstacle time presents when asking instructors to consider finding, evaluating, and adapting OER for use with their students. The notion of OER is wonderful, but teachers' realities often stand in the way of it being plausible. The widespread need is for materials that are "off-the-shelf" ready to implement, and such options within the world of open or free are limited in that regard. 

While time is such an obvious challenge to more widespread OER adoption, from the viewpoint of many, publishers are the big bad monster that stands in the way of more widespread OER adoption—a monster trying to maintain its position as the profitable gatekeeper of learning resources. But publishers have served and continue to serve a very necessary role: providing quality, comprehensive, and consistent content in a manner that is easy for instructors to simply pick up and begin using, giving instructors more time to plan, teach, grade, and complete the myriad other responsibilities that come with being an educator. The value of what publishers offer is a full-scale curriculum carefully designed to meet most teachers and learners where they are within the current standard, institutionalized models for teaching and learning, as opposed to some perceived ideal—however well-meaning and warranted—of where they should be. 

Head in the Sand—We Hear You, We Just Aren't Really Listening to You

Over the past decade and a half in educational publishing, it's been interesting to witness the increased head-scratching, angst-ridden debates around "what to do about OER" from the defensive side of the educational materials delivery playing field. At first, when attention started being paid to OER, the shared belief by publisher's was "they will never beat us in content." Publisher materials, particularly larger scale programs like elementary math and reading programs and college texts, wielded the name-power of well-respected subject matter experts and practitioners who served as authors and contributors, giving them far more credibility than some "Wikipedia-like" source of learning materials.

This leverage served the industry well for a few years. But, over time, innovators began finding ways to produce full-scale text, curriculum, and courses that also were being developed by respected subject matter experts and institutions. At the same time, the massive open online course (MOOC) movement was gaining increased attention, where students could take non-credit, college-level courses for free from major institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, while a growing number of online course providers such as Udemy, Udacity, Coursera, and EdX also emerged 

Over time it became clear this notion of free content and disruptive delivery models of courses could no longer be ignored, and publishers had to address this monster that simply was not going to go away. Doing so was (and continues to be) easier said than done, however, because these new models of content delivery did not fit into those that allowed the publishing industry to catapult into a billion dollar industry in the 2000s. Similar to the music industry, a rise of smaller providers offering cheaper and even free content options coupled with evolving modes for delivery all presented a massive threat to an industry in which publishers had served as the main source of content for decades. 

While publishers have tried various attempts to adjust to these new models, it's been difficult to do so while at the same time trying to reconcile declining revenues. Some publishers offer API integration of OER content into their paid institutionally licensed platforms by way of partnering with companies that curate and align OER to standards. Others have developed their own platforms with subscription models that allow for access to loads of their own for-pay content along with curated OER content.

Within models such as these, however, districts still must pay for access to a single publisher's platform. Passed off onto the customer are whatever costs the publisher pays for their OER content integration partnerships or their own internal curation costs. And, by way of holding OER and free content captive behind the wall of a paid license or subscription login to their proprietary platforms, publishers are perceived as being unwilling to relinquish their standing of being the gatekeepers of content. The irony of these models is clear, and rightfully has been met with skepticism. Publishers are hearing the calls for more open and free content, but it does not appear they really are listening. 

"Come closer...
we love love looooove OER!"
Never was this disconnect made clearer to me than at the OpenEd conference I attended last October, during which I eagerly attended a publisher-led session that purported to be a conversation about whether publishers were "good citizens or obnoxious tourists" in the world of open education. At the start of the session, the presenters reiterated that very goal. The presentation quickly devolved, however, into a sales pitch for some soon-to-be released product that included OER integration within a paid subscription.  

These glaringly obvious attempts to make profit off the inclusion of OER overshadows whatever good intentions publishers may have. They hear that people want more options—cheaper and even free options—but refuse to listen by way of creating pricing models that throw in the face of the spirit of open, in the process coming off as being a wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to wanting to be OER-inclusive. 

Inside Todd's (Big) Head—Play with the Monsters

So how do we reconcile this standoff between opposing monsters? If we look at shared challenges everyone is looking to address, both OER providers and publishers could first stand to come to agreement on a couple realities. 

First off, there is no one-size-fits-all model for any teacher, learner, or training program, and this is particularly true in adult education where no two learners are starting or ending in the same place. Consequently, the notion of having a single provider for all learning content simply is not realistic, nor has it ever been the case. If you walk into an adult education provider's classroom or resource room, you will see shelves lined with the content of any number of publishers' materials. And, if you hop onto a computer in these same buildings, you will see desktop shortcuts or bookmarks to any number of digital learning providers as well. From all these resources, instructors strive to pull whatever works for each individual learner, most often a manual, labor-intensive process. 

Second—like it or not—we are moving toward a world of microlearning, where just-in-time training related to one's immediate skill needs are oftentimes more valued than degrees or certifications that increasingly tend to have limited shelf lives. (Please feel free to ask me about what cutting edge tech concepts were covered in my Master's of Technology in Education program from 2001...I'm certain my notes are somewhere on the cell phone I didn't even own at that time :) In a world where the list of skills one needs for success in work or life evolves at a continuous and accelerated pace, access to varied, ongoing learning opportunities based on skill needs in relation to whatever end goals a learner has at this moment has far more value than expensive one-time courses or milestone educational accomplishments captured on a piece of paper that hangs on an office wall or more often sits in a file drawer. 

At CrowdED Learning, we believe that the delivery model of learning can and must change, allowing for a new landscape where publisher content and OER content can be strung together seamlessly, and where free content always remains free to the learner. In a world of monsters playing together, I as a learner should be able to see whatever content aligns to a skill I need to learn—and the content that appears for me should be based on any combination of my learning preferences and goals, what's been assigned to me, and whatever paid content to which I have access. 

The future of educational resource delivery is not a zero-sum game—where if I win, you lose and if you win, I lose. There is room for OER, traditional publisher materials, and who-knows-what next-best-thing will surface to all be used in tandem. It simply comes down to delivery models that are consumer-friendly. If we can improve the delivery model, we can actually begin to realize the promise of OER while still making room for the great publisher materials out there. To do so requires both sides accepting  that the best model of learning resource delivery is one where any two learners—who may happen to have the same destination—are provided with tools that allow them to chart wildly different paths for getting there.

I understand this all is easier said than done, but I am committed to the idea it most certainly can be done. It's simply a matter of culture change, and the faster we embrace this change, the faster we will reach a world where we efficiently are delivering the best, just-in-time learning resources to learners possible. Change is always hard, and often it is bittersweet. More bitter than sweet? Sweet than bitter? Either way, it's time for both sides to give in to the perceived monsters standing in their way; time for a bittersweet...surrender. 

Now that I've given you the cheesiest ending to a blog post in the history of blogging, I invite you to play the song...you know you want to :)

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!