Blended Learning | Viewpoint

Winners and Losers with Open Education Resources

In the fourth installment of their monthly column, blended learning experts Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker discuss the growth of open online resources and their impact on blended learning.

First the good news. As bleak budgets induce more schools to embrace blended learning, free and open online resources can make the economics of blended learning enticing. One specific set of these materials, open educational resources (OER), meaning online teaching and learning resources that are available for everyone to use under a set of licenses, are a huge boon to several populations.

The first-place winners in terms of quantity of lives affected are poor students in developing countries. Tom Vander Ark wrote in Getting Smart that cheap devices combined with online material make it possible for almost anyone to learn anything. He predicted that in five years, "Low-cost blended private schools will serve close to two hundred million students in India, China, and Africa."

The growth in free and open resources makes that prediction imaginable. Higher education has led the way. The New York Times reported that in 2003 there were 511 free courses available online, all from MIT, but that the current total is more than 21,000--with 9,903 in languages other than English.

In May, Harvard and MIT announced a project to offer online courses through the new edX platform. The universities said they aim to "build a global community of online learners," and will charge only if a student wants a certificate pronouncing mastery of the course materials. It wouldn't be surprising to see these courses begin to disrupt the College Board's Advanced Placement Program and have an effect in high school as well.

The second group of winners is students in the United States. Today, more than 10,000 K-12 schools are using free Khan Academy materials in blended-learning groups of 10 or more students. When they use free resources, schools can convert to some of the blended-learning models, such as the flipped classroom, for a minimal dollar cost. In the first year, the real cost is time and acclimation for teachers, but by year two teachers tend to recoup those costs and love the opportunities that these models afford them. In that sense, teachers in the U.S. are the third group that can benefit from free and open education materials.

Finally, taxpayers as a whole may benefit from free and open education resources, as open materials have the potential to disrupt traditional textbook publishing and reduce costs. The public will only realize tangible savings, however, if policymakers devise incentives for schools to return savings from the new efficiency.

For more about those who win from OER specifically, keep your eyes on the Department of Education's, a competition to reward videographers who best depict the benefits of OERs.

Now for the losers. Free and open materials could spell trouble for print textbook publishers if a sustainable ecosystem emerges to support it. The best advice for publishers is to skate to a more profitable link in the value chain. After all, profits do not go away. Instead, through "the law of conservation of attractive profits," value migrates to other players in the sector, according to Clayton M. Christensen's The Innovator's Solution. "When attractive profits disappear at one stage in the value chain because a product becomes modular and commoditized," Christensen said, "the opportunity to earn attractive profits with proprietary products will usually emerge at an adjacent stage."

As open education resources flourish, the real likely winners appear to be the firms at the next stage in the chain, who are delivering learning management systems to integrate online material into blended classrooms. Firms like Education Elements, Junyo, Agilix with its BrainHoney solution, Illuminate Education, and New Classrooms appear to be growing rapidly. Insofar as publishers are able to skate to opportunities like these, they have a chance to survive in an OER world.

About the Authors

Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions throughout Your Life.

Heather Staker is a senior education research fellow at Innosight Institute.