scale

I have written before about the connections between OER and open practice and why I think open practice should be the goal, not merely the adoption of OER.

While I hope and believe that OER can pave the way for open practice, it is not at all obvious that the use of OER is a necessary condition. In fact, some of the most vibrant classroom exemplars of open practice in action that I’ve seen have not involved OER. It is possible to have open practice with proprietary content. While this may skirt the gray edges of copyright law, this has long been the case in education, and most don’t want to talk about it or simply don’t care.

My concern about many efforts to make OER “mainstream” in K-12 education (work that I should say, I have long been supportive of) is that it may not lead to open practice or in the worse case, any meaningful change in practice. It may only lead to the creation of a new variety of the traditional publishing (and learning) paradigm that has not served learners well. (Unlike higher ed, there are no clear economically-motivated buyers in K-12, and while many of us have hoped that OER would present the opportunity for cost savings on curriculum to be used to improve instruction, it is not obvious that this is likely.)

Why then is mainstream OER adoption being emphasized over the change to open practice? The answer is scale.

Simply put, mainstream adoption of OER is scaleable, while a change to open practice is not.

In many initiatives, not only those concerned with OER or other educational innovations, but also those related to other social changes, scale is the goal. The thinking is that if we cannot reach some critical mass of change (10% is often cited as a “tipping point”), the effort is not worth pursuing.

I question though whether scale should be the goal or whether in fact, scale for these kinds of change is even feasible. I first began to question the premise of scale as a goal when I became involved in international development work, an area that Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze’s book Walk Out, Walk On eloquently and compellingly explores. Doug Belshaw’s recent post “Caring Doesn’t Scale, and Scale Doesn’t Care” brought this to mind again.

In education, another area where the idea of scale has been targeted less than successfully is with charter schools. The idea, as I understand it, is to provide exemplars of innovative practice that could then be “scaled” across the broader universe of public schools.

The problems with trying to scale innovative practice are many. First, as in the case of charter schools and many other things, there are many necessary preconditions to change (regulations, common values, infrastructure, human resources, political will, etc.), that are not easily put in place. The kind of changes we are talking about here don’t just happen because someone wants them to happen. (In fact, many, perhaps most, want these changes and have worked hard for them, but the huge institutional pull in a different direction is hard to overcome.) Perhaps most fundamentally, meaningful change cannot be imposed from the top down; it must be initiated by those at the grass roots level. As Belshaw says, “it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives.” As much as we want a recipe approach, a “silver bullet,” that’s just not how deep change is made.

It seems to me that to achieve open practice will involve many years of hard incremental work on various fronts. And I wonder if the effort we put into making non-transformative OER “mainstream” is effort that we are not putting toward what really matters.

Should scale be the goal?
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