I have been posting my latest updates on OER research studies at the Open Education Group Website. Go check it out!

In a word, no. At least not in the most recent study published by the Open Education Group. This was one of the most rigorous studies done on OER efficacy to date, and was recently published in Education Researcher, one of the highest ranked academic journals in Education. In this study we measured the performance of high school students on end-of-year state standardized exams and compared the results of those who used OER versus those who used traditional textbooks. Using propensity score matching, we controlled for a number of variables, including ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, previous teacher performance, and so forth. Even when controlling for all of these variables, we found that those who used OER performed slightly better than those who did not.

I believe the implications of this study are significant. In the United States alone, taxpayers spend billions of dollars on textbooks in elementary and secondary schools, as well as in higher education. What additional learning units are we purchasing with this money? If we were to take the money spent on textbooks that could be replaced with OER and spent it in more pedagogically effective ways, what kinds of learning outcomes could we achieve?

For those interested in the full research, an Open Access version of the article is available.

textbook headline

We all know, as this headline shows, that college textbooks are expensive. There have been a variety of estimates regarding the total cost of textbooks, including this report by the Student Public Interest Research Group. I, along with other researchers in the Open Education Group, were curious to know how much students were spending on textbooks in colleges that have replaced traditional textbooks with OER. Our study was based on the work done at the following colleges: Cerritos College (Norwalk, CA, 22,000 students); Chadron State College (Chadron, Nebraska, 3,000 students); Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, New York, 10,000 students across four campuses); College of the Redwoods (Eureka, California, 10,000 students); Santa Ana College (Santa Ana, California, 18,000 students); Santiago Canyon College (Orange, California, 10,000 students); and Tompkins Cortland Community College (Dryden, New York, 3,500 students).

In most instances each of these colleges had some sections of the course that used OER and others that used traditional textbooks. So we went to each college’s online bookstore to and (for the sections using traditional textbooks) identified each teacher’s book list and created a list that enumerated the prices of their required textbooks. For example, to identify the textbook cost for students attending Professor R’s (non- OER) English class, we would go to the bookstore website for her school, find her booklist (see Figure 1), and sum the total costs of her books based on the prices on the bookstore website.

Figure 1

We examined textbooks in a variety of fields, including Math, English, Psychology, Business, Geography, Chemistry and Biology. The full results of our study were recently published in an article titled “Cost-Savings Achieved in Two Semesters Through the Adoption of Open Educational Resources.” This study, published by the International Review of Research on Open and Distance Learning, found that on average students spent $90.61 per textbook. Assuming students take ten classes per year, this means that meaning that a full-time student would spend over $900 on textbooks each year. Broad adoption of OER makes that cost zero for every student impacted. If these savings were realized by only 5% of the 20,994,113 students in the United States who enrolled in college during the 2011 fall semester, the total savings would be approximately one billion dollars per year. The cost savings can quickly add up!

Math is one of the many topics that I think lends itelf to OER. College Algebra hasn’t been revolutionized in the past few years, and so the idea of purchasing expensive textbooks for this course is, in my view, pretty suspect. Scottsdale Community College has created/remixed some incredible resources that are freely available for students. I was lucky enough to publish a study with some magnificent colleagues, chronicling money saved by students at SCC, and also what happened to the educational outcomes of students utilizing these open resources. See the article recently published in the International Review of Research on Open and Distance Learning.

Perceptions of OER

My good friend T.J. Bliss was the lead author on two recent studies focusing on how students and faculty perceived open educational resources. I think that listening to these voices is very important. Both articles are open access — visit First Monday or the Journal of Interactive Media in Education to learn more. Great work TJ!

As you probably know, FWK has announced that it will no longer provide a free version of its textbooks. This is clearly disappointing to the OER community (for example you can feel T.J.’s frustration). David Wiley’s response is here. David and I have published a couple of articles about FWK’s financial models (at IRRODL and First Monday). I had also worked with David and Neil on FWK’s  model of reuse, recently published another article with Carol Laman and had two others in the works (those two I’m afraid will never be published. For now at least there isn’t quite the excitement on a $19.95 access model).

All of this is to say I have had some experience writing about and thinking about FWK. I love the company, and I love their textbooks. If I teach Psychology 101 again will I use the FWK text? Probably — they are right; their $19.95 access plan is cheaper than anything else I could offer my students. But do I wish the free option were still there? Absolutely.

In my thinking and writing about FWK the key thing I missed was the importance of ROI. Eric Frank said last year that FWK has raised 30 million in venture capital. That’s a lot of money. Even if FWK was profitable (to throw out a random number, I don’t know their bottom line this number could be much higher or smaller) by 3 million dollars per year, it would take 10 years to recoup the cost of the investment, and even after that the ROI would be relatively small. I don’t blame those who have invested in FWK seeking a better return on investment.

It will be interesting to watch going forward to see if any tries to replicate the FWK model (perhaps using grant money instead of venture capital to seed the project).




This past summer I had a great experience using a version of Flat World Knowledge’s Psychology textbook while teaching in China. Working with that book led me to a collaboration with Carol Laman of Houston Community College (HCC). HCC’s Pyschology Department adopted the Flat World text and had some great success using it in their department. Carol and I wrote an article about it, which was just published in the journal Open Learning.

The bottom line is that during the fall semester, 2011, 690 students used this book.  Compared to students using a traditional text in the spring of 2011, students who used the free online textbook scored higher on departmental final exams, had higher GPAs in the class and higher retention rates.

Copyright restrictions prevent me from posting the full article (I understand the irony of publishing about OER in a non-open access journal), but the “preprint” (what I sent to them before the article had been peer reviewed) is here. They have given me 50 free eprints of the final version of the article, which are  available here, while supplies last…

I’m having a great time at Open Education Conference. I’m presenting this afternoon on the topic of “Using Open Textbooks in Community Colleges” along with Jared Robinson. We will be focusing on our recent work with the Houston Community College, Virginia State University, and the Kaleidoscope Project.

Here are the slides from the presentation.


Book Review: Steve Jobs

I’ll be honest — I’m not really an Apple fan. When I was in Junior High my friend David and I would have huge arguments about Macs versus PCs. I do have an iPhone however and honestly think it has made my life better. I’ve never been interested in Apple as a company though, and not at all interested in Steve Jobs as a person. When I got a copy of his biography (more on that at the end) it sat in my “to read” pile for a couple of months. But once I picked it up last week, I couldn’t put it down. There are currently 1,628 reviews on Amazon so I don’t feel obligated to give an in-depth review. But I want to share a few thoughts about how it impacted me personally.

1. Intuition. I was amazed at how Jobs was able to discern what it was the customer wanted and then go for it. Three relevant quotes: “At the end of the presentation someone asked whether he thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” he replied, “because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”” (p.143). ““On the day he unveiled the Macintosh, a reporter from Popular Science asked Jobs what type of market research he had done. Jobs responded by scoffing, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?”” (p. 170).  On another occasion: “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, a faster horse!’” (p. 567). I’m not saying that market research should be thrown out the window — but I was impressed at how Jobs could cut through the paralysis that can come come from doing too much of it.

2. PowerPoint Presentations. I use them all the time. Jobs had a different view of PowerPoints – at least in meetings. Isaacson writes, “One of the first things Jobs did during the product review process was ban PowerPoints. “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,” Jobs later recalled. “People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” (p. 337). And again, “Steve prefers to be in the moment, talking things through. He once told me, ‘If you need slides, it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about.'” (p. 387). I still see value in PowerPoint, but it makes me wonder if I am using it as a crutch. Do I know what I’m talking about? (I also appreciated the caveats posted here).

3. Do the impossible. Apple determined that Corning’s Gorilla Glass was needed for the iPhone. Jobs met with Weeks, the head of Corning to discuss it. Isaacson recounts: “Jobs described the type of glass Apple wanted for the iPhone, and Weeks told him that Corning had developed a chemical exchange process in the 1960s that led to what they dubbed “gorilla glass.” It was incredibly strong, but it had never found a market, so Corning quit making it. Jobs said he doubted it was good enough, and he started explaining to Weeks how glass was made. This amused Weeks, who of course knew more than Jobs about that topic. “Can you shut up,” Weeks interjected, “and let me teach you some science?” Jobs was taken aback and fell silent. Weeks went to the whiteboard and gave a tutorial on the chemistry, which involved an ion-exchange process that produced a compression layer on the surface of the glass. This turned Jobs around, and he said he wanted as much gorilla glass as Corning could make within six months. “We don’t have the capacity,” Weeks replied. “None of our plants make the glass now.” “Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good-humored and confident but not used to Jobs’s reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise that Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn’t accept. He stared at Weeks unblinking. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.”” (p.471-472). They did it. Am I reaching for the impossible?

4. Do less, but do it right. Jobs told Larry Page (Google’s cofounder), “What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great” (p. 552). Am I getting distracted by too many things? What are the core areas where I can focus and make a difference

5. Bring your child to work. During the Attenagate scandal, Jobs was called away from a family vacation to figure out how to solve the problem. Isaacson writes “Jobs also decided to bring his son Reed, then a high school senior, back with him from Hawaii. “I’m going to be in meetings 24/7 for probably two days and I want you to be in every single one because you’ll learn more in those two days than you would in two years at business school,” he told him. “You’re going to be in the room with the best people in the world making really tough decisions and get to see how the sausage is made.” Jobs got a little misty-eyed when he recalled the experience. “I would go through that all again just for that opportunity to have him see me at work,”” (p. 521). Enough said.

Now there are lots of things I didn’t like about Jobs. For example, he seemed really mean. But at the end of reading is biography I was inspired. I wanted to be a better person and go out and change the world. I decided that I wanted to buy a copy of this book for several people — My recollection is that I got it on Amazon for a ridiculously low price ($3.00 or so – I can’t imagine why else I would have bought a biography about a person I wasn’t interested in). But when I went to purchase additional copies, I found that not only was the price higher than I thought, but that I never purchased the book from Amazon. That’s the only place I buy books, so now I have a puzzle on my hands … how did I get the book? I’m not sure, but I’m very glad I did!

Earlier I posted on research relating to high school students using open textbooks in their science classes. One of my favorite parts of that article was a figure that illustrated different potential outcomes, both in terms of money saved by using open textbooks and learning gained. Here’s that figure:

In the article, we described 2 iterations of purchasing books, and 1 iteration of comparative test scores. We’ve just finished our 3rd iteration of buying books (cost per book, including shipping ~ $4.00), and are getting our 2nd iteration of test data (not clear yet, but it looks like scores increased). If these two items turn out to be correct then the school district will be in the top right hand corner of the Figure … that sweet spot of saving money and increasing learning. More to come!