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Calculating the Academic Return on 'Open' Educational Resources

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Publishers and school officials have been debating the merits and practicality of "open educational resources"—free academic materials that can be revised and circulated pretty much at will—for some time now.

Can they offer a high-quality alternative to commercially produced texts? Will K-12 systems step out of the shoppers' aisle and build a curriculum around open materials produced by a nonprofit or university? To what extent will for-profit publishers jump into the game by making portions of their catalogs available for free?

One prominent backer of open resources, David Wiley, makes an economic and educational case for them a recent online post, arguing that when judged by "learning outcomes per dollar," open materials easily top commercial resources for value.

Wiley was responding to an online post by Jose Ferreira, the CEO of ed-tech company Knewton, who argues that despite some claims, open-ed resources don't have the quality, curation, or support to undermine the traditional education publishing industry, at least not yet. Wiley agrees that OER needs to step up their servcies and supports to compete against traditional publishers. (He also notes that his company, Lumen Learning, is trying to fill that void.)

But he also says the Knewton official is missing the point—that the biggest threat to commercial publishing is based on the "simplest possible metric," for measuring the impact of spending on education materials: the academic gains per dollar spent.

Wiley uses an example cited in recently article in Educause Review, describing a pilot effort at Mercy College, in which the institutions shifted from usuing a commercial math text and online practice system, for $180 per student, to open-ed resources. (He told that the example is relevant at the K-12 level, too.)

Here's Wiley's basic cost breakdown, taken from his post:

"By switching all sections of basic math to OER, Mercy College saved its students $125,000 in one year and changed their pass rate from 48 to 69 percent - a 44% improvement.

If you read the article carefully, you'll see that Mercy actually received a fair amount of support in their implementation of OER, which was funded through a grant. So let's be honest and put the full cost-related details on the table...

So let's do the learning outcomes per dollar math:

  • Popular commercial offering: 48.4% students passing / $180 textbook and online system cost per student = 0.27% students passing per required textbook dollar
  • OER offering: 68.9% students passing / $5 textbook and online system cost per student = 13.78% students passing per required textbook dollar

For the number I call the "OER Impact Factor," we simply divide these two ratios with OER on top:

  • 13.78% students passing per required textbook dollar / 0.27% students passing per required textbook dollar = 51.03

This basic computation shows that, in Mercy's basic math example, using OER led to an over 50x increase (i.e., a 5000% improvement) in percentage passing per dollar. No matter how you look at it, that's a radical improvement."

 

In a follow-up e-mail to Education Week, Wiley noted that switching to open-ed resources, on its own, won't improve academic outcomes. But he argues that factors connected to that shift, such as giving students greater access to the materials they need, as opposed to limiting them because of a college's or school district's relationship with a for-profit publisher, and giving teachers greater freedom to customize materials rather than keeping them less reliant on this or that commerical resource—will ultimately help.

What's more, the lessons from above-cited postsecondary case apply to K-12, he contends.

He points to previously published research that show the potential for major financial savings for K-12 systems in their use of open educational science materials. And he predicts that open-ed resources will be be shown to out-perform commercial texts, in terms of academic results, going forward.

"The primary difference in the [school and college] contexts is who saves money after the choice is made to adopt OER," Wiley wrote to Education Week. "In colleges, it is the student who saves. In K-12 it is the district or school who saves."


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