The OER Content Trap

Recently I’ve been following  a discussion about the future of OER (Open Educational Resources). Most of the discussion has been via blog posts between David Wiley (@opencontent) and Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof).  Others have contributed via Twitter.  It’s a friendly exchange with the key blog posts having been David’s

and Rajiv’s

The discussion is not really a new one. It’s the question of how to promote OER. There has been for a while two “camps” or points of view.  To simplify (or oversimplify) the question:  To expand OER use do we argue the “free textbooks” aspect emphasizing retain and reuse, or do we argue the “open pedagogy” practices aspect and emphasize revise and remix powers.  The points are, of course, well made and I’m not writing here to disagree.

Rather, what I want to suggest is that we’ve fallen into a trap by our use of the word “resources”.  We need to stop thinking about “resources” period.  No more OER.

Yes, I have a proposed replacement – wait for it.  First, let me explain where I’m coming from. The past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book called The Content Trap by Bharat Anand.  Read it. Do it. It’s a highly readable, story-laden book about business strategy for digital businesses. But despite being so accessible, it’s also strongly supported by good research and the economics of business strategy.  Trust me. I’ve been a full-time academic for the past 15 years, but I’ve spent nearly four decades in the business strategy world. I spent a good 20+ years working on these kinds of issues: how to expand adoption of a new technology/product/process/service and how to compete. I spent a lot of time a few years ago helping to craft strategy for a college.  I don’t praise business strategy books easily. Most are crap or pablum. The Content Trap is not. It is based on both sound empirics AND sound economics and behavioral analyses.  The oversimplified, too short TL;DR version of Content Trap is this: focusing on the product is a trap. It’s the connections that count: connections between products, between customers, between producers.

Rajiv is right that part of the problem is changing minds and certainly understanding the relevant psychology should inform our advocacy.  David is also right about a very important thing: we are competing against the for-profit publishers and the publishers are pivoting their strategies towards platforms.  But the essence we’re facing is a strategic competitive problem.  It’s the Open folks vs. the for-profit, lock-down, lock-in publishers.  I think by focusing on the “resources”, the content, we’ve fallen into the content trap.  We worry about how to finance the costs of production of “free” textbooks. We worry about competing for adoption of OER texts vs. the publisher texts. We’re trapped into focusing on the content.  Even when we talk about open educational practices or pedagogy, OEP, we’re still focused on the content because we focus on how the content is used.

We’re not alone in this trap. Nearly all higher ed institutions are there too.  They almost all think their special sauce is are the courses they teach or the research publications they produce. They’re wrong.  Similarly, the special sauce in open education isn’t the OER, the resources, books, videos, and content. The real special value is in the connections people make, the community that forms, and the identities they forge.

So what should we be focusing on? Open Education Connections or Open Educational Communities. OEC.

I’ll have more to say in the coming month, God willing.  I know this is just kind of a tease so far but I don’t have time tonight to go further. In my own head I’m beginning to visualize winning strategies built around this concept of OEC’s. It’s a lot more complex than just a simple name, great strategies always are.

I’ve got a panel discussion at OER17 conference coming up in April.  I’m trying to put together a couple longer blog posts in preparation for that.  Right now I’m thinking this OEC idea might fit.