Free to Learn Guide/Ensuring Quality

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There are currently two primary methods employed to ensure the quality of OER. The first replicates traditional academic practices by using a carefully vetted, top-down authoring system in which an institution places educational learning resources that carry its brand into an open format for free use, re-mixing or adaptation by others. In this instance, the institutions are responsible for the quality of the materials. The second methodology relies on the same basic procedures used in the open source software community. In this model, an unlimited number of authors collaborate on the creation of OER. Both of these primary OER production methodologies stimulate new forms of knowledge sharing.

The differences between these two approaches reflect a divergence in philosophy between those who believe a centralized and carefully controlled authoring system ensures quality and others who maintain that quality is best enhanced by an open process that invites contributions from as many people as possible. Those who prefer the branded approach, where an institution guarantees quality, contend there is no practical substitute for reliance on known authorities whose credentials are certified. On the other hand, those who prefer the more open OER production methodology maintain that the best way to ensure quality is to share and spread the responsibility for creating and maintaining quality among a greater number of contributors. Those holding this view often cite open source software programmer Eric Raymond's observation, published in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, that "... with enough eyes, all [computer programming] bugs are shallow..." The same can be said of shoddy or uneven scholarship or teaching, which endures and sometimes even thrives only when isolated from outside scrutiny. The healthy contest between these two models of OER production and improvement replicates the current division in the global software industry, where both schools of thought – top down and bottom up -- have made valuable contributions.

The benefits provided by OER to faculty and students have been documented in two recent studies conducted by researchers at Tufts University and Utah State University, respectively. Tufts' OpenCourseWare site has been available online since June 2005. The site contains 22 courses from six Tufts schools focusing on the health sciences and international affairs. The most popular course materials, according to download logs, include lectures, readings, lecture handouts and syllabi.

Tufts recently conducted an OCW Intercept Survey, a web-based, pop-up survey instrument, which yielded 641 respondents for an 8.9% response rate. Tufts then sent a follow-up web-based survey instrument to volunteers, generating 42 respondents for a 20.3% response rate yielding 28 unique user profiles. Taken together, these user logs and survey data indicate that among users of the site, over half are self-learners, nearly one-fourth have their doctoral degree and just under 20% cite medicine or health sciences and technology as their primary interest. On average, visitors to the Tufts' site spend more than 30 minutes per visit reading and reviewing course materials. Nearly 40% of users download materials during their sessions. Surveyed site users who were faculty members indicate that Tufts OCW positively affects their teaching practices by providing additional teaching materials, by enabling them to integrate Tufts materials into their courses, by increasing their knowledge levels in certain areas and impact how course materials are developed by emphasizing instructional technology. All told, nearly 300,000 unique users accessed the Tufts OCW website within its first 15 months of operation.

Another recent study on the reaction of faculty members participating in the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) project, conducted by Preston Parker at Utah State University, yielded a similarly positive review. Parker used three sources of data for his study: (1) five years' worth of archived emails from the instructors at MIT to the school's OCW project administrators that discussed the benefits they had received by participating in the project, (2) the responses from three previous annual instructor surveys, and (3) interviews with the instructors themselves.

Parker notes in an abstract of his findings, “The results show that there are many tangible benefits to MIT instructors participating in MITOCW. They feel they have more recognition academically because their work is out there to be viewed and used. They feel connections have been made with other instructors that may not have if it were not for MITOCW. The instructors were better able to understand what other colleagues were doing. These connections have resulted in better publishing opportunities and grant proposal efforts. Instructors also feel that students who sign up for their classes are more prepared for the course. It is also convenient for the instructors to have the materials available and online for current and past students."

In addition, other studies are currently underway to assess the quality of OER vs. traditional commercial educational materials in terms of learning outcomes and student success. The early data from these studies indicates a clear advantage for certain forms of OER. Data and conclusions from these studies will be integrated into future versions of this paper.

The MIT Dilemma: Too Much Information

MIT's bold decision to release vetted, high-quality learning materials for free public use and repurposing led many scholars at other institutions to similar acts of scholastic generosity. This avalanche of learning materials created one of the OER movement's first major problems: the inability of many potential users of these free learning materials to easily and quickly determine which resources best fit their needs, as well as ensuring that the materials of interest to them could be legally used, reproduced or adapted. As a result, despite the increasingly frequent availability of better, cheaper, more robust and dynamic learning materials, the typical college and university instructor continues to rely today, often with little enthusiasm, on conventional commercial learning materials, including old fashioned textbooks, which do not pose similar adoption hurdles.

A number of related efforts are taking root that are aimed at helping higher education instructors overcome the obstacles to the adoption of OER. These companion efforts include the increasing popularity of the public, standardized suite of intellectual property (IP) licenses and tools developed by the non-profit Creative Commons, which can easily be appended to any printed or online document or media. These human-, lawyer-, and machine-readable IP licenses and tools allow scholars, instructors and authors to mark their creative works with the specific freedoms their creator wants it to carry relative to use by others. As such, scholars, instructors and authors can now share their works on clear terms acceptable to them, which range from giving up all rights to the preservation of commercial exclusivity when desired.

Seeking to increase the utility of these materials, some advocates are now organizing OER into repositories, essentially online OER libraries that are often grouped by subject matter or level of instruction. Several teams of skilled and motivated programmers and academic experts are also developing new tools, including software programs and websites, that can be used to collaboratively create OER, assemble discreet OER chunks or modules into more complete and comprehensive works and to more easily publish, as well as print, OER using interoperable formats that make the material more functional. These efforts include formatting the materials so they can be accessed with a variety of digital devices ranging from computers to cell phones to EBook readers, and/or printed in hard copy for those without access to the Internet. In just the few short years since MIT got this ball rolling, there has been a flood of activity on the OER supply side, as hundreds of thousands of high-quality learning material items have been placed at the disposal of the public for their free use and repurposing. Making sure that faculty and students derive the maximum potential benefit from the availability of these free, high-quality academic resources, particularly at financially hard-pressed public institutions, is the responsibility of higher education governance officials and policy makers.

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