The Power and Promise of OER is the Democratization of Education

Open educational resources, more commonly known as OER, promise a revolution in education. Historically, access to educational resources has been severely limited by the ability and willingness of someone to pay for instructional materials. However, the digital revolution makes it possible to post top-notch educational resources online, making it a reality for almost every student in the world to have access to those resources.

One intriguing use of these resources comes from Modern States, a non-profit group that hosts study materials—including video lectures and OER textbooks—on its website. Modern States makes its courses available for free. Students who complete the courses can take the corresponding CLEP exam and, if they pass, earn college credit. This is the framework for Modern States’ goal of making it possible for a student to earn a year of college credit for free.

Of course, like other MOOCs, Modern States requires a student to have the persistence to take an entire course with no external motivators. This is a pretty tough task for most college-age students, but it nonetheless has the potential to foment a revolution. It really is possible to earn a year of college credit with no more than an internet-connected computer. This is but one example of the democratization of education. Note that, in addition to overcoming the barriers of cost, Modern States—and other OER purveyors—are able to overcome other obstacles to education, such as distance and disability, that can make it difficult for some students to pursue higher education.

Another model is that of Khan Academy. They have become well-known for their video lessons and practice materials. Unlike Modern States, their materials are more atomized and more appropriate to use when supplementing other instruction. But this, too, is an important aspect of the democratization of education: in the past, outside tutoring was usually limited to those students who had parents who could afford it. But now, all students can access additional help through Khan and similar platforms.

OER also makes it possible to keep resource-poor and underserved schools on a more equitable playing field. Complaints about out-of-date textbooks are a perennial problem for poorer schools, but OER helps to bridge that gap. Especially in STEM subjects, this is an important aspect of democratization. Groups such as CK12 mean that no student will need to rely on out-of-date texts.

While there are still challenges, OER presents opportunities to democratize education that simply have no historical parallel.


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