The Challenges and Opportunities of OER in K-12 Education

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I have long believed that OER in K-12 education will have a good life so long as it does not directly threaten the commercial publishers of school textbooks.  It’s not clear to me when this battle will occur and who will win it but I do expect to see strong opposition to widespread OER for core k-12 learning materials that have long been sources of significant profits for a small number of very influential publishers.That said, I believe the reduction in the cost of textbooks may be one of the more important reasons for moving to OER for such core learning materials.  The transition  from the current purchasing of an inadequate number of expensive textbooks to providing an unlimited supply of OER could more than pay for the cost of the technologies required to reach all school-aged children with high quality content.  An obvious second OER benefit is the ability for the contents to be updated frequently to keep them current.  The traditional textbook business requires several years payback on their investment, thus ensuring that the materials become dated quickly.

What about the OER benefit of teachers being able to modify the OER content? Two challenges come immediately to mind. First, education, and its content, tends to be tightly controlled by governments.  Often this is at the national level; sometimes at the regional or state level.  But in virtually every case, government officials decide what should be taught and how it should be taught.  It is not clear how enthusiastic they are about a system that lets a headmaster, let alone a teacher, or (awk!) even a student, change what they are learning. I think it is too early to know how that will play itself out but its worth thinking about. Second, PDFs. OLE has found that a lot of OER materials come as PDF’s. As you know PDF’s are designed to be “permanent.”  This is very much aligned with the tradition of publishing:  once something moves from being a “draft” to being “published” it is a “fixed thing.”  It has an ISBN, or ISSN number and that’s it. If you want to change it, it needs a new number, since its different.  That way, if you want to refer to a publication you can cite it, knowing that item will always, for a century, be the same.  There is something very comforting about that, especially for bibliographers.

So, opening up the core concept of what a publication is, is a big deal.  Even more of a big deal is letting unknown people change your carefully crafted publication to suit their own purposes and goals.   You can easily see how dangerous and attractive that is, depending upon who you are.  Now, as you know, there are good tools for converting a PDF into a Word document, which can then be changed.  So, in reality, the horse is out of the barn.  Given today’s technologies, publications will be changed, whether the bureaucrats and traditional publishers like it or not.   There are legal constraints but not technical ones.

Legally the “changes decision” is made by the “owner” of the resource, whether that is its creator or the publisher.  If the owner chooses to license the resource with a “Free Culture License” (CC: Attribution 4.0 International) then the user can legally modify the content so long as the original created is given attribution.  If one chooses a”No Derivatives” option, then one cannot legally distribute changes to others. Thus it is important to think about what “ethical and professional standards” should be applied to the creativity involved for someone to change k-12 educational materials in the developing world that have been freely offered for use in learning. That leaves unsettled the political question of how prepared are governments to endorse the practice of teachers changing educational content to meet their specific needs. I will be interested to hear what policies the readers propose.

For k-12 education in the developing world, what resources should be “open” to being changed and what should be “closed?” Do you support a policy that enables teachers to change their textbooks? What about students making changes in their textbooks?