Open educational resources (OER) have become a sort of holy grail in ed tech circles. They combine the sharing and openness of the web with carefully curated resources designed to supplant the textbook. They provide additional options for instructors and cost-savings for students. They showcase the best aspects of a community-oriented pedagogy.
Or do they?
I like the idea of open educational resources. I really do. But I still find something very troubling about the way in which they are used and discussed. OER still represents a carefully curated set of instructional resources aligned to a particular way of thinking about the world, and often conforming to particular standards – what I might call the “textbook view” of life – and are thus implicated in providing an overly sanitized view of the world. They insulate students from information “out there” by pre-digesting it and packaging it for ready consumption. This makes sense given the way we think about school, as the place where one goes to get the right information about the world and to learn the things that one needs to get a job. But if learning is actually something else, something more difficult and trickier to teach, then OER falls into the same trap as textbooks: they don’t help students learn how to learn. They don’t help students learn how to critically evaluate sources and arguments that exist “in the world.” They take the possibilities of the web, a fundamentally open system (at least theoretically), and offer a sanitized and curated view of it. It’s great that OER saves students money, but it’s not so great that they don’t advance critical faculties or pedagogy.
How do we help students learn how to critically engage with the kinds of messages that exist “out there”? How do we help them flourish by stoking their innate sense of curiosity? How do we break out of the “textbook view” of life and help students explore the world beyond the walled gardens of our own creation?
But of course, I’m not the first person to think about this. For a much more eloquent statement of this issue, I urge you to watch Gardner Campbell’s “Ecologies of Yearning” talk at Open Ed 2012. And please use the comments section if I have missed some examples of OER that really do expand the boundaries of student learning rather than reinforcing the textbook view of life.