Finding the problems OER solves

At the Hewlett Grantees meeting in San Francisco, David Wiley made a very good argument that we need to focus on specific problems that OERs can address and solve those. I think this is part of the mainstreaming process – at the start of the movement there are grand claims and big visions. These are necessary to get it going, but over time and with further investment the focus becomes more practical. So, reducing the cost of textbooks for students in higher ed is one such specific problem. We can show how OERs (in the form of Open textbooks) can achieve this, we can implement an approach to solve it, and we can measure it.

We also discussed whether there are universal problems which OER can solve. David suggested that actually problems often look superficially similar, but there is such variety in context that they are actually very different problems. The situation in North America is different to that in Europe, and that in the UK is different to that in France, and that in K12 is different to higher ed, etc.

I would contend that there are some problems which, if not quite universal, are similar enough to be of interest to a wide range of people. If we take the original premise that we need to focus on specific problems, then the next stage is to find problems of sufficient interest. Here are some which our OER Research Hub findings point to, but these are just some suggestions, and will undoubtedly be influenced by my higher ed, northern hemisphere perspective, so I’d love to hear more:

  • Student retention – students in formal ed at all levels were often using OERs to support their learning. At the moment this is all behind closed doors as it were, but educators could make better use of promoting OERs to offer a broader range of material. Specific research could then identify whether such use does aid retention.
  • Student recruitment – higher education study is increasingly expensive in many countries, so the idea of trying it out for a year and then maybe switching to a different course is not really an option (as it was in my day). So if you want to help recruit students who are really interested in your subject, then giving them some good OERs is one way of them exploring whether they want to study with you. Again, there is longitudinal research here that could verify whether this has any impact.
  • Student costs – this could be in terms of open textbooks for formal learners, but also more broadly in terms of allowing access to educational content that would otherwise be unaffordable for informal learners. This research would focus on the impact of OERs for informal learners, or savings for formal learners.
  • Pedagogic variety -teachers, colleges, universities all struggle with the issue of appropriate staff development, updating the curriculum and incorporating technology. We found that use of OER by teachers led to a lot of reflection on their own practice, and caused them to incorporate a greater variety of content and approaches in their teaching. The impact of OERs on teaching practice is, I think, under reported and researched so one could imagine projects targeted specifically at encouraging this.

There are obviously more, but that wouldn’t be a bad set of problems to both solve and to investigate fully. But I definitely feel that these targeted benefits allied with appropriate research is what is required in OER now.


  1. Too many students don’t purchase course materials at all, or use cheaper out-of-date or substitute versions, because of cost. Others may delay purchase until the semester is well under way. I have to think that OERs will improve not just retention but also success when students are able to use their course materials freely, as soon as the class begins.

  2. […] Finding the Problems OER Solves Martin Weller. I tend to think of myself as a pragmatic dreamer (a recipe for cognitive dissonance if there ever was one) leaning a bit heavy on the pragmatic side. Which is why I appreciate Martin’s perspective so much. This pragmatism was also evident in a presentation of Martin’s that I watched this week on The Battler for Open (which I am three chapters into) when he responds to the criticism that, after 10 years OER’s haven’t disrupted education with “has it just been useful?“ […]

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