Open Educational Resources (OER) – Rant-Fest

OER has been bugging me for a while. This 2 billion Federal Investment in OER is just the thing to get me up fired up on a SoapBox about OER.

Here is the first Michael Feldstein post

And the second post from Michael Feldstein

Here is a Post from Rob Abel of IMS (disclosure – I do work as a consultant for IMS)

And here is my rant that is a combination of my reaction to Michael’s post plus my reaction to Rob’s post. If you want a more balanced view – see Michael’s posts above. If you are here reading my blog – it must mean you are lookin’ for a rant. I hope not to disappoint.


As a teacher, there is little value in learning content that I cannot alter (Remix). SCORM, Flash and PDF are effectively write-only formats designed for a model where content publishers make and distribute content and we teachers simply consume and/or point to the content.

This obsession with “making and publishing” OER artifacts that are unsuitable for editing is why nearly all of this kind of work ends up dead and obsolete. We end up with piles and piles of highly financed but un-editable artifacts that are usually obsolete the day they are created. The job of teaching is to *contextualize* materials – not just point at them. Most OER activities completely miss this point – they make some slick web site and then try to drive people to their site – virtually none of these efforts can demonstrate any real learning impact – all they can show is that they have a lot of viewing traffic. I would think that most current OER efforts traffic levels are directly correlated with the branding and marketing of the organizations hosting the sites – rather than the educational value or impact of those materials.

There are rare examples of OER materials impacting education – but they key to the ones that work is that the value is when there is a *teacher* teaching the materials rather than a bunch of highly polished PDF files that can be viewed. And the very fact that there is a teacher involved in the useful OER materials means that they quickly become stale and unless that same teacher keeps redoing the materials over and over, the materials lose their relevance and their value and since they are not in a reusable/remixable format (i.e. Flash, PDF or SCORM) – those materials are dead to the world.

On the other hand if the materials are published in a remixable format with a creative commons license – then when the OER from one teacher or publisher loses relevance – some other teacher or publisher can pick them up and move them forward.

As an example, I am writing a book called “Python for Informatics” ( – but this is a book that is over 10 years old and has four major authors and has been updated, refreshed, and published many times in the past 10 years by a different author each time. This is because the book (now) has a Creative Commons Share-Alike License (formerly GFDL) *and* more importantly it is distributed in a re-mixable format. That re-mixable format is LaTeX – which is a painful format to use – but at least it is the source materials and not some PDF that is dead the moment it is produced. This book that has a 10-year lifecycle and will be here 10 years from now in yet some other form *is* the motivating example – not the current OER web sites that are mostly marketing tools.

As I have said elsewhere, “This reminds me of the late 1990’s where the sexy foundation grant of the day was to give $250,000 to some graphic artists to make a really cool CD-ROM about bugs as if that would transform teaching somehow. By the time the CD-ROMs were ready, they were obsolete – both technologically and content-wise – and they were so narrow and limited as to be a completely pointless exercise. But the foundations that paid for them felt like they had made the world a better place. At the same time while the dinosaurs of the marketplace in the late 1990?s were in a feeding frenzy on well-intentioned grant money, smart clever folks were building a whole new industry – that was sadly under-financed and took years to develop and only found its stride when the technologies were commercialized and we had to buy them back from those innovators.”


While I am completely ranting here – the problem is difficult to solve. There has been almost no investment in the building of a re-mixable format for OER materials. IMS Common Cartridge is the best we have but it needs a lot more investment in both the specification and tools to support the specification fully.

The Learning Management Systems (Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, Sakai, Jenzabar, etc) are doing real investment and that is great and it will lead to real progress in time – but I wish that we could see some grant/foundation investment into building a real remixable learning content ecosystem that empowers teachers instead of just pre-buying a lot of useless material for them using government money.

But it is hard. And if there is a desire to spend 2 billion dollars in a hurry, then the only easy strategy is to give it to well-established organizations with large staffs and accept what you get back from them. I just wish that a tiny bit of the money would go to actually solving the problem that needs solving instead of just blowing the money on ighly-publicized projects to show that “our hearts are in the right place”.

I might wonder out loud whether 2 billion dollars of investment in the wrong thing is “better than no investment at all”. If the goal is to make more jobs – then poorly directed spending is better than no spending at all. But a sad downside of giving the money to the wrong folks is that it “blesses” the wrong approach and it makes it even harder for the folks who know what to do and how to do it to get their work done. Because of so much money flowing in the “conventional but wrong-headed” direction, it sends a message that anyone who might think counter to that direction is “wrong”. So innovation is squashed by conformity.

Oops – I am ranting again. I will stop now – and please don’t mention the “alles uber analytics” craze that is sweeping the misguided funding agencies right now. I have some work to get done this morning…