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When 1+1=3: The Surprising Synergy of OER and Adaptive Learning

Approx 4 minute read

Jeremy Anderson, Deputy Chief of Academic Technology, Bay Path University

Jeremy Anderson, Deputy Chief of Academic Technology, Bay Path University

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When 1+1=3: The Surprising Synergy of OER and Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning and open educational resources (OER) are both drawing attention in higher education for their ability to help address some of the cost, quality, and access challenges that most institutions are facing (EDUCAUSE, 2018). Still, each is typically viewed as a separate innovation, as most conceive of adaptive largely as the “how” of teaching and learning and OER as the “what.”

That doesn’t have to be the case. Combining the two technologies at a large scale at The American Women’s College at Bay Path University has allowed us to tap the benefits of each while simultaneously realizing unanticipated advantages. In essence, we’ve found that the two work better together.

Addressing Quality Outcomes: Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning – broadly, the use of algorithms to pair students to content – holds promise for helping to solve Bloom’s (1984) 2 sigma challenge of replicating the learning benefits of one-on-one tutoring at scale. As a tutor might shift instructional tactics during a session if a student is struggling to grasp a concept, an adaptive learning platform can automatically serve up an alternative representation to a student if she asks for it or if her achievement on assessments suggests a need for remediation. Beautiful things happen, in turn, when faculty members are presented with insights about this automated remediation – seeing very specifically where students are challenged and using their expertise in focused ways to work with students who most need support.

One of the key challenges in creating adaptive courses is coming up with the granular content required to feed the system’s algorithms and insights. Traditional experts – i.e., tutors and faculty members – might have decades of experience and hundreds of resources at the ready to deliver to students who need them most. The best adaptive courses are the ones that convert that kind of tacit knowledge and skill into explicit repositories of learning materials. Filling this need nicely are the tens of thousands of high-quality OER published online.

Addressing Price: OER

A central tenet of OER is that it is “free” insofar as students and faculty do not pay for the rights to use content (ongoing upkeep and editing are a different concern). Considering cost figures for textbooks provided by the College Board (2018), a student in an academic program with robust OER adoption could save thousands of dollars while earning her degree. This is of importance since many students, and disproportionately those in community colleges, resort to using financial aid money to fund book purchases or forego books entirely because of the cost (Senack & Donoghue, 2016). 

Another unique benefit of OER are the 5Rs – revise, remix, reuse, redistribute, retain – that enable faculty and students to use content in maximally creative ways. From a faculty perspective, in particular, open licensing makes it possible to select the most relevant and aligned materials to support learning. With such promise comes the challenge of curating materials. Thankfully, organizations like OpenStax and OER Commons have helped to create communities where educators can exchange ancillary materials – assessments, slide decks, etc. – to lower faculty’s cost of entry into the world of OER.

Better Together

As promising as they are separately, combining adaptive learning and OER into a single innovation decision helps to extend the benefits of each to fill needs of the other. Adaptive courses require large quantities of content broken down granularly; there are substantial amounts of OER that represent all levels and fields of academia. In contrast to the prevailing model of intellectual property in proprietary publishing, the remix rights of OER also make it possible to add to, remove, and repackage pieces of content to meet the exact needs of an individual instructor’s teaching approach and an adaptive course’s concept hierarchy. Faculty and subject matter experts, if so inclined, can add their own expertise into the mix. Out of the blender comes a broad and deep collection of content highly aligned to learners’ and faculty’s needs.

Combining adaptive and OER also make it possible to personalize learning in another less common but arguably, increasingly important way. Remixing and revising OER increases the ability to author content that speaks to the experiences of socioeconomically diverse learners. Loading OER that has been customized in this way into an adaptive system additionally layers in recognition of academic diversity that may otherwise be lacking in a traditional, one-size-fits-all textbook learning experience. Together, these tools respect learners in powerful, complementary ways.

Learning data from adaptive systems also helps support more sustainable OER adoption and maintenance from a more operational lens. While proprietary publishers have built edition revisions into their business model, the same cannot be said of OER production that largely has been funded through granting organizations or the efforts of committed individuals. Where adaptive learning helps is in providing a large volume of performance data via frequent assessments. Instructional designers and faculty can review these data to detect underperforming content and use OER’s remix and revision rights to make targeted improvements. Not only does this reduce the long-term cost associated with maintaining OER, faculty and institutions can choose their own revision timeline rather than have one imposed by an external vendor’s edition cycle.   

Think Different

Carrying out an adoption of OER or of adaptive learning can be tough, since each represents a fundamental change to components of the longstanding, prevailing model of higher education. Everything about my time in the industry suggests to me that a shift like this won’t come easily. Interestingly, what helps in the case of adaptive-OER courses is that they align with and honor academic freedom, one of the most important traditions in higher education. Faculty, after everything is said and done, are the ones who will engage the 5Rs to build the content stores in adaptive courses and who will support students’ learning. Innovators and early adopters among faculty ranks have seen this for what it is: an opportunity to improve human connections and to further empower the instructor and learner. The work of these faculty provides us with a template to think differently about how learning and teaching can occur in the not-too-distant future.



EDUCAUSE. (2018). Horizon report, 2018 higher education edition. Retrieved from

Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4-16.

College Board. (2018). Trends in college pricing: 2018. Retrieved from

Senack, E., & Donoghue, R. (2016). Covering the cost: Why we can no longer afford to ignore high textbook prices. Washington, DC: The Student Public Interest Research Groups.