Voice from the Industry

Taming the OER Lion: The Opportunity and Cost Equation of “Free”

Like trying to tame a lion in the wild, the thought of meaningfully managing the jungle of Open Educational Resource (OER) options can be intimidating. At the same time, like the lure of the lion, it can also be alluring to imagine the promise of open, free access to such a powerful animal. Now that I’ve made my point, let’s “tame” this analogy.

Educational technology vendors are constantly talking about creating meaningful solutions that leverage OER. Yet, as SIIA’s paper released earlier this year points out, there are significant costs—“as much as an additional 20% annual cost”—that cannot be ignored. In addition, the complexities associated with intelligently integrating and leveraging OER into a meaningful classroom solution are as significant as the costs. When trying to determine how best to capitalize on the allure of OER, industry professionals often look to the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) and the Learning Registry for guidance. These sources typically evoke one of two reactions. Either (1) your eyes glaze over and you get lost in the exhaustive explanation of how these two efforts will increase access to learning resources or (2) your eyes light up at the enticement of increasing market share by leveraging these new options. Either way, you cannot underestimate the cost and complexity associated with meaningfully leveraging the benefits of OER.

While some believe that “content is king,” I would argue that “context” is the real king of the educational technology jungle. When attempting to use resources to meet specific learning objectives, not only are there significant variances in quality from repository to repository, but also the evaluations of resource quality can vary greatly based on the context of use. For example, the quality of an OER resource can be significantly different when used for ELLs than it would be for a classroom of accelerated or gifted learners. Therefore, it’s not just the quality of the learning resource itself you have to manage; it’s the quality of the contextualization (the metadata) of the resource that’s critical.

To that end, I have often said that LRMI is raising the “table stakes” on metadata. LRMI provides the entry point (the ante) when contextualizing resources. However, to meet the personalization promise we’re all striving for, we must carefully wage our bets. Not only must we consider how the learning resources will meet the nuanced needs of different learners, we must also be willing to invest significantly in their contextualization. But the investment doesn’t stop there. You must have meaningful applications and services for connecting those contextualized learning resources to the learners. The Learning Registry is attempting to generate a network of access, but like our “lion” metaphor, the Learning Registry is still wild and untamed with little to no mechanisms for managing quality of the resources, quality of the metadata, or quality of the paradata (automated and human-contributed data about resource usage). Indeed, the Learning Registry can provide a pathway through the jungle. However, in order to come out unscathed on the other side, you still need a highly experienced guide to ensure you stay safe and enjoy your adventure.

Non-metaphorically speaking, rather than waste significant time, money, and energy looking for the best OER resource to meet your needs, consider selecting applications and services that have been designed to integrate OER sources into a unified, vetted context. Only then will you be able to successfully take advantage of what OER has to offer without jeopardizing the learning environment.


As the Chief Academic Officer at Knovation, Steve Nordmark focuses on the future vision of educational technology to support personalized learning. Steve researches, tracks, and analyzes trends in learning sciences, interoperability, and technology architecture foundations for next-generation learning systems. Fostering partnerships with ed tech vendors, foundations, industry associations, universities, districts, teachers, and students, Steve leads research and development of concept designs, building the capacity for increased learning outcomes. Steve may be reached at snordmark@knovationlearning.com.