Since Stephen Downes' OLDaily alerted me to Justin Reich's post earlier this month, I've been stewing a lot about Reich's argument: that open educational resources may be expanding rather than erasing educational inequalities. Reich's story, along with his related research, raises important questions about whether or not the push for more OER is really benefitting all students in the ways that we pat ourselves on the backs, thinking that it is.

It's certainly the praise you often hear and one I truly believe in: by making these materials available online, and specifically by making them free and openly licensed, we are significantly increasing the educational opportunities for all students. With OER, everyone benefits.

Everyone benefits, yes. But in practice, Reich argues, not everyone benefits equally, nor in a way that's going to close any sort of achievement gap. Rather, more affluent students may actually benefit disproportionately from OER, in part because both teachers and students have the time and the technological capacity to do more with the material. Apologies for quoting at length, but if that's true, then this is important:

Maybe teachers in wealthy schools-with fewer students per teacher, more students passing tests, more prep periods, fewer classes to teacher, more curriculum support, more IT support, etc.-are better able to use Khan Academy videos not just to push content to students, but to reimagine pedagogical models. These teachers use the content to flip the classroom, differentiate and personalize instruction, release students from seat time requirements, etc.

Any of these new models are possible because teachers can assume that every kid has reliable broadband internet access at home and on their mobile device. By contrast, maybe teachers working in schools serving low income students simply can't make as much use of the Khan Academy videos because they lack the planning time, broadband access, etc. In this model, schools with greater fiscal and human resources have more capacity to take advantage of even free and open resources.

This second model is actually quite troubling in its implications. If this model is generally true, then virtually every education technology initiative which does not specifically target the needs of particular populations will disproportionately benefit the wealthy, even if the materials are free.

To be clear, this isn't an argument for more walls, for more proprietary, less open content. Rather, it's a call to recognize the ways in which education technology -- even when free and open -- could increase rather than decrease the achievement gap. It's also a call to do something about that, and Reich makes a number of suggestions to that end: ensuring that we expose all students, not just the high-performing ones, to these resources, that we develop ed-tech initiatives to address the neediest students.

I can't help but think about Reich's story in light of MIT's announcement about MITx, its new online learning initiative that promises open online classes with -- for a modest fee -- certification.

When I wrote about the news on Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, my questions related mostly to how MITx might impact other open courseware efforts (at MIT and elsewhere), other online massive online offerings (at Stanford and elsewhere), and other peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

But I've got other questions too, particularly through the lens of Reich's post. Will having to pay something for certification (and we don't yet know how much that "something" will be for MITx) alter how we think about informal learning with MIT Courseware? Will certification change how we think about open courseware more broadly? Will there be an Open Badge, I wonder? There'll certainly be no financial aid to cover a MITx certificate (unlike funds -- and yes probably student loan debt -- to cover an MIT degree). Who can afford to pay? Access to versus certification for education -- what matters (and why?)

Again, none of this is an argument that we need to close down and lock up educational content. Nor is it an argument for more restrictive credentialing. Nor is it more than the very slightest nod to that fact that some folks seem to look at OER and write pretty tone-deaf crap about how free online educational resources are the golden ticket for success.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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