In OER-Driven World Education Publishers Must Focus on Instructional Design
In an earlier blog post I made the statement that in the age of open education resources (OER), curation, not content, will be king. My thesis was that the sheer abundance of available content -- some produced by for-profit publishers and some from other sources -- reduces its value. The real providers of value, I wrote, will be organizations that sift through this cornucopia of content, organize it, and surround it with the kinds of metadata that make it useful -- i.e., the content curators.
In the K-12 publishing segment, which is my professional focus, publishers are showing openness to mixing their copyrighted materials with OER (defined by one source as “teaching and learning materials that are freely available online for everyone to use”). While the development of OER represents an obvious threat to publishers’ profits, some educational publishers (notably, McGraw-Hill, as described in the earlier blog post) believe that by taking on a curatorial role and adding value to the content in other ways, they can beat back the threat from OER and actually benefit from it.
By over-emphasizing curation, however, I missed an important point -- that it’s not enough just to organize content and serve it up to educators. Access to a wealth of curated content can still leave educators lost at sea, struggling to make decisions on how best to use it. And the fact that even the most skillful educators need some hand-holding when faced with a deep content repository -- even a well organized one -- points the way to how educational publishers can survive in an era when content is at risk of becoming commoditized.
How Teachers Are Using OER
This point was hammered home at a panel discussion entitled “OER and the New Blended Classroom,” the closing session of the AAP PreK-12 Learning Group’s Content in Context conference held in early June. Moderated by Randy Wilhelm, CEO of Knovation -- whose company curated 300,000-plus OER assets that McGraw-Hill is integrating into its Engrade platform -- the panel discussion highlighted the challenges teachers face as they try to take advantage of the availability of OER.
To set the table: a generation ago, teachers’ decision-making about what content to use was fairly simple. For most courses, their districts gave them with a core textbook, which in essence provided them with a curriculum. Some teachers might have chosen to omit a chapter here or there, vary the sequence, or use additional materials not in the textbooks (so-called supplemental materials, again often provided by the school district), but the textbook gave them a basic framework.
“Curriculum decisions used to be made at central office,” said Wilhelm at the panel. “As districts stop doing that, there’s an unofficial transfer of authority over the content to the teachers.
"I see teachers working till 1 AM trying to find content for their classrooms,” he said. “Often they fall for what I call ‘nifty-ism.’ They find nifty stuff, but it doesn't align to curriculum standards, or it’s weak pedagogically.”
Wilhelm was quick to add that he wasn’t being critical of teachers. "I can find every part for my car,” said Wilhelm, “but I have no qualifications for building a car." The point is that being a great teacher is not the same as being a great curriculum designer.
Echoing Wilhelm’s comments, Dr. Alexis McGloin, superintendent of the Upper Perkiomen School District in southeastern Pennsylvania, said, “We have to think about what teachers are capable of carrying on their shoulders… The worst thing our teachers can do is pull things from Pinterest -- but that’s what they do.
“We used to buy books,” she said. “The books were the curriculum.” But her district doesn’t do that anymore, she said, so it has to take a different approach in order to maintain control of the process.
“We use OER when we can’t find what we want, or think we can do it better,” she said. “We don't use off-the-shelf; we need to pick and choose what works.” It started, she said, because teachers couldn't find what they liked.
“We fund people who know how to find materials and then help teachers integrate them into classrooms seamlessly,” said Dr. McGloin. “We’re spending money on people, not resources.”
The OER Opportunity for Publishers
While this transfer of funding from resources to people doesn’t sound like good news for educational publishers, it clearly points the way toward how they can re-order their priorities in an OER-driven world. That is, they can focus less on the mechanics of content creation and more on the details of instructional design -- addressing a wide range of issues such as how the elements of a program work together, what order they should be used in, which parts of a lesson should be done in class and what should be homework, when students should work alone or in small groups, how to differentiate instruction for different kinds of students, and how to assess student progress.
This isn’t necessarily bad news for educational publishers -- or even news at all -- since instructional design has always been a key element of what they do. But rather than being just one aspect of an educational program (albeit an important one), instructional design will increasingly become a key differentiator -- as will the teacher support that publishers provide with their programs.
"What hasn't happened yet is [the emergence of] companies that do value-added services," said another panelist, Doug Stein of metacog.
It remains to be seen exactly what the fabric of those value-added services will be. But as OER proliferates, if publishers want to stay in the game, it’s a good bet that the skills involved will have less to do with how they create individual threads of content, and more to do with how they curate it -- and then stitch it together.