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Open Educational Utopia and the Individual Instructor

Open Educational Utopia and the Individual Instructor
Open educational resources are emerging as a highly valuable solution to the college affordability crisis, making higher education more accessible for more learners.
Heralded for over a decade, the OER (open educational resources) revolution has, for most of this period, seemed always just out of reach. As little as three years ago, Shai Reshef, founder of  University of the People, could without understatement, call the impact of OERs on higher education a “quiet, yet revolutionary force … behind the curtains.”[1]

No more. The public, politicians and educators are zeroing in on outrageous textbook prices as both a target and as a powerful lever for broader reform in higher education. Big players such as MIT, Stanford, Carnegie, Lumen Learning, and even the federal government are now pushing a flurry of initiatives, partnerships and consortia related to OERs. We may not have arrived at the open educational utopia, but for the first time, entirely OER-based programs, such as Washington State Community Colleges’ competency-based model, are a reality. [2]

So, where do these rapid developments leave the individual faculty member?

Replacing the familiar, tangible textbook can feel like walking on a tightrope without a safety net. The challenges of selecting from the wealth of free online resources — not to mention shaping and sequencing such resources — can be overwhelming. How do instructors avoid constructing course materials that are little more than a laundry list of web links? The old “handout pack” in electronic form? Is it best to adopt an open textbook? Is it appropriate to adopt sources branded as another institution’s? Should instructors outsource the creation of course materials in this way? Should they write their own open textbook if none exists?

What are textbooks for?

Let’s begin with a more fundamental question. What is a textbook for? What role has the traditional textbook played in how we design courses, how we teach and how students learn? With regard to these questions, Clifford Lynch has laid out a critical distinction. According to Lynch, we need to distinguish between a “learning opportunity” and an “educational opportunity.”[3] Learning opportunities are ubiquitous. The Internet is paradise of learning opportunities. Learners can access an ever-expanding universe of OERs, searchable databases, online texts, open courseware and other learning objects.

It is not easy to be a university of one, however. Most of us require what Lynch calls an educational opportunity: An experience constructed by faculty and other university experts and staff, and certified by accreditors and governments to issue certifications and degrees. We need the scaffolding, sequence and guidance that good teachers and good schools provide.

The textbook functions as a sort of bridge between the learning opportunity and the educational opportunity. Textbooks, whether physical or digital, have the advantage of being stable, vetted, continuously maintained resources. A textbook provides visual and physical scaffolding for learning — it signals to students, for better or worse, “This is what knowledge looks like.” A textbook is administrator-friendly, too, as it provides a handy way to standardize individual course sections and manage program curricula.

Little wonder, then, that the textbook has been a fixture of education for so long — and that the OER revolution has taken years to reach what increasingly looks to be a tipping point.

Beyond Textbooks

Open-source electronic textbooks represent a compromise, allowing instructors to enjoy some of the benefits of using OERs, while maintaining the familiar support and structure of a textbook.

Yet one lesson pioneering online instructors took to heart early on was that the new medium would never be successful if we tried to duplicate every aspect of the face-to-face classroom. Each medium has its own strengths. The same is true of OERs. The range and variety of OERs available allows us to bundle, sequence and modularize resources in ways impossible with a physical, or even a digital, textbook, as the Washington State example demonstrates.

OERs also offer new opportunities to enhance learning, by creating new venues for faculty-student interaction and student-student interaction around and even within course content. To give just one example, social bookmarking sites such as Diigo offer ways to organize, annotate, highlight and share program-level and course-level groups of sites.

Such tools can make our interactions with a text transparent to other readers. Reading becomes a sharable, social activity (as indeed it has been for much of human history). What has been a “black box” for instructors —what are students actually doing and learning when they are off doing the assigned reading?—now becomes a venue for interaction and exchange.

Towards Open Educational Utopia

Models that have worked for many decades or centuries tend to be tenacious, however. The questions with which we began — should instructors write their own textbooks? Should they use other institution’s course materials? — conceal a bias, a way of thinking about proprietary resources shaped by the tradition of the physical text. As Gerd Kortemeyer has argued, it is a way of thinking that has contributed to an individualistic or “cottage industry” approach to adopting OERs, and that has held up the movement for much of its first decade. [4]

A new attitude will be required of individuals and institutions to fully participate in the OER revolution.

What will that new attitude look like? A place to start is with the profile of Dr. Phil Venditti by Cable Green of Creative Commons. Green describes Venditti’s tireless efforts to produce and promote free and open educational resources, such as his remarkable “50 Wise Speakers,” a resource for public speaking courses. Venditti’s inspiring credo could serve as a guiding principle for the OER movement as a whole: “I believe that the essence of education should be sharing. Every day I ask myself, ‘How can I help connect more people to more information that might change their lives?’”

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[1] Shai Reshef, “How Open Educational Resources are Changing Higher Education,” The Huffington Post, August 15, 2011. Accessed at

[2] “Competency-based Education and Open Educational Resources Converge in Washington Community Colleges’ Newest Online Degree Program,” Lumen Learning Press Release, September 18, 2014. Accessed at

[3] Clifford Lynch, “Digital libraries, learning communities, and open education,” in Iiyoshi, T., and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds, Opening Up Education: the Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008) pp. 106-118.

[4] Gerd Kortemeyer, “Ten Years Later: Why Open Educational Resources Have Not Noticeably Affected Higher Education, and Why We Should Care,” Educause Review, February 26, 2013. Accessed at

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