I attended OpenEd for the first time in 2008. I dug up some notes from the event and rediscovered an observation by Yoshimi Fukuhara of Keio University. He asserted that Open Courseware (now generally referred to as Open Educational Resources or OER) is often too focused on content and not enough of learning design and the learning experience.

OER: Content vs. Design

While openness for its own sake has practical and philosophical value, there is broad consensus that content in an educational context (be it open or otherwise) is only as valuable as the outcomes it contributes to. The reality is that it is possible to make the best content in the world freely available to learners in a course and still have learners fail to achieve specified outcomes. Content will be effective only to the extent that is in curated and aligned through an intentional, backward design process that includes: (1) articulating measurable learning outcomes, (2) designing engaging learning experiences intended to help learners achieve those outcomes and (3) creating valid, authentic assessments of the specified outcomes.

OER can be effectively incorporated into the programs, courses, modules and activities that result from a careful learning design and alignment process. Prof. Fukuhara’s observation was prescient. In the nearly 10 years since that OpenEd meeting, there have certainly been multiple instances of students failing to achieve outcomes in spite of access to great content and counterexamples of students stubbornly achieving learning goals even though their content was poor in quality (or even inaccessible or nonexistent).

Affordability and Performance

That OER reduces student costs is beyond debate. But OER can only ever be as effective as the learning design, experience, and context in which it is presented and consumed. The same can certainly be said for any kind of learning content. In fact, in head-to-head comparisons of OER and premium content, students cohorts in the same courses tend to fare just about the same (or even better) when using OER. Reasons for this phenomenon include some or all of the following: (1) the OER is as good or better than the premium content, (2) OER-based courses might tend to be more carefully and intentionally designed, (3) all learners have ready access to their materials the first day of class. (A key opportunity for additional research is to compare actual student access, utilization and engagement with various kinds of content in equally well-designed courses.)

Committed to Affordable Learning

At Cengage and Learning Objects (a Cengage company), we are committed to exploring the relationship between various kinds of content and good learning design. We are passionate about reducing costs for learners AND driving them effectively and efficiently to the achievement of learning goals, and ultimately, to earning meaningful credentials and degrees.

Accordingly, we are engaging in a variety of different research-driven curricular offerings:

  1. We recently introduced MindTap ACE a “digital solution that blends curated Open Educational Resources (OER) with Cengage content.” As this product is used by instructors and learners, we will compare its effectiveness with other traditional products.
  2. We are building out a series of backward-designed, learning-outcome-aligned general education courses using OER exclusively for the content. These courses will be deployed on the Learning Objects platform which provides powerful data linkages between outcomes, activities and assessments. These data relationships drive personalized learning experiences within and across courses, enable the mapping and tracking of learning across multiple courses and unparalleled program analytics and reporting.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, we are committed to openly sharing the design behind the courses we build. We will share the backward-design curriculum maps, rubrics and formative assessments associated with the OER-based courses we design and publish. The precise formats of course design documentation and related resources are TBD, but they will also be released under an open license.

Cengage and Learning Objects are passionate about learner success. We believe that everyone should be afforded the opportunity to learn, including great resources and well-designed learning experiences. We will continue to innovate on both the cost and effectiveness sides of that equation with a persistent focus on getting learners started, helping them persist and ultimately achieving their academic goals so they can pursue their career and life ones.