Free to Learn Guide/Moving OER into the Educational Mainstream: Challenges and Opportunities

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The initial progress in creating OER content has generated a large pool of accessible high-quality learning materials and successfully demonstrated new models of knowledge sharing. Two major challenges and opportunities remain. The first revolves around the need to sustain the ongoing production and release of OER by the instructors and institutions currently producing these materials, as well as encouraging similar contributions by others. This may involve building and improving tools that make the OER production process more efficient, and developing strategies that encourage the wider educational community to participate.

The second is accelerating adaptations of OER for specific applications and groups of learners. To achieve widespread adoption, OER materials must continue becoming more useful in a greater variety of educational contexts. Progress in both of these areas is essential in order to move OER into the mainstream of the global education system. Advances here will encourage the creation of additional high-quality OER content, which will stimulate more use and still greater demand.

Despite dramatic recent progress, the production and use of OER is still not recognized as integral to the operations of most educational institutions, including many with active OER programs. Instead, scholars at a handful of academic institutions have created the majority of the certifiably high-quality OER that presently exists, relying on substantial outside philanthropic support.

In a similar vein, only a tiny fraction of scholars, teachers and instructors in the United States and elsewhere currently receive any incentives, compensation or tangible rewards from the schools that employ them to produce, adapt, use or improve OER. In fact, faculty participation in the promising new world of OER can in some cases limit their ability to obtain institutional recognition or promotions linked to more traditional activities valued in promotion and tenure review processes, such as commercial publication of their work.

Nonetheless, educators who produce OER typically do so to make a positive difference in the world or to create learning materials for their own purposes, which they then share. Often, instructors use their own time, resources, technology and equipment. This type of faculty dedication and service to students should be honored and rewarded by the institutions where it occurs or, at a minimum, be considered in faculty tenure and promotion on the same basis as participation in more traditional for-profit publishing pursuits. Unfortunately, at most higher education institutions selfless work by faculty members who produce OER is more typically ignored by the deans and department heads that should, for the greater good, be rewarding and encouraging this work.

The OER movement will not reach the critical mass required to achieve its full potential without increased support from existing educational institutions, including through conventional budgeting and collegiate philanthropic channels. The governance policy in support of OER enacted by the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Governing Board of Trustees, which appears later in this document, is one model for addressing this need.

Interview with Judy Baker Ph.D., Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources

The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) was created at Foothill-De Anza Community College District to develop and promote the use of OER in community college courses. It is as a joint effort with the OER Center for California, and the League for Innovation in the Community College.

CCCOER has grown both domestically and internationally since its founding in 2007, with more than 200 community colleges as members. With grants from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the CCCOER launched the Community College Open Textbook Collaborative a year later to identify and inspire the use of peer-reviewed, accessible, and culturally-relevant open textbooks targeted for use by community college students and faculty.

Working together to raise awareness of alternatives to expensive, commercially developed and published textbooks on campus, CCCOER and the Collaborative are developing and disseminating sustainable models to promote creation and use of open textbooks within a robust web-based participatory learning community of pioneering faculty, students, and academic partners. The Collaborative website now links to more than 545 open textbooks as well as peer reviews of nearly 100 of these books, and has obtained accessibility assessments on many.

Dr. Judy Baker, Dean of Foothill College Global Access, is well aware of the opportunities for increasing adoption of OER, as well as the areas where improvement is needed. She is excited about how open licensing for educational content provides a means for people to share, remix and improve the content, and for faculty to take greater control over localizing the content and making it relevant. In her words, "OER and open textbooks are a catalyst for faculty to regain ownership over the curriculum they teach."

Regaining this control and providing fresh educational experiences is critical to the future of community colleges, Baker believes. "In the same way that newspapers and the music industry slumbered while the times changed, the community college world is faced with a direct challenge," says Baker. "At a time when you can just download the instruction that you want, why do students need an expensive college experience when all they need is the content?"

In tough financial times, this dynamic becomes more severe. "Many students can't afford the luxury of college and textbooks," continues Baker. Institutions that recognize this can create a less-costly student experience by using free OER known as open textbooks. In just one community college course, CCCOER estimates that open textbooks save De Anza College students more than $70,000 in textbook costs each quarter. "Community colleges that advocate for lowering the cost to students for textbooks are increasing access to higher education," she adds.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act has also made an impact. Campus bookstores are now required to publish the price and ISBN number for all textbooks for courses. This disclosure creates knowledge of actual textbook costs. Once students learn costs of textbooks for a course, they can choose a particular professor based on the actual cost of taking their class. "We are developing a good relationship with campus bookstore managers. They are actively trying to get in front of OER, instead of being like newspapers and becoming the victims," Baker adds. "They know that less expensive and free course materials are coming and they are looking to participate in that transition rather than disappear."

There are challenges. Since institutions do not save anything, the price incentive is most attractive to students. Teachers can be reluctant to change from a publisher's textbook, not only because they are convinced it is best for their students, but also because textbooks are the easiest option and because every change requires extra labor and, what's more, they'll no longer receive a free instructor copy.

The biggest threat to the widespread adoption of OER, however, might actually be faculty promotion committees. "The people who serve on those committees are entrenched in using standard textbooks," says Baker. "They are judging new faculty who are using innovative content and concluding that they aren't doing it right because they are doing it differently." According to Baker, Boards of Higher Education need to take a stand in support of OER and taking risks in faculty tenure decisions.

"Failing to support faculty who are developing innovative teaching and using innovative content ensures that nothing but traditional methods will flourish," concludes Baker. "In a cost-conscious and rapidly changing educational environment, failing to embrace low-cost open content and support innovative teaching is the surest path to obsolescence."

Community College Consortium on Open Educational Resources –

Community College Open Textbook Collaborative –

Open Educational Resources Center for California –

Incentives that encourage faculty to develop and share OER adaptations would also be useful. That may include providing faculty release time for their production, positive consideration of these activities during tenure review and promotion processes, and the cultivation of institutional cultures that elevate the professional stature of contributors to the OER movement.

Institutional support would be especially beneficial in developing digitized collections of academic materials whose copyrights have expired, including textbooks, the creation of more interactive learning tools and increased support for the creation and release of additional multimedia learning resources including, most notably, videos of in-class lectures, presentations and demonstrations. Early evidence indicates that video is a highly preferred OER delivery method. The OER field would benefit greatly from the creation of additional raw video material (i.e. authoritative footage) as well as related recommendation engines and more robust techniques for archiving, retrieval and the affordable and cost-efficient distribution of high bandwidth video files without degradation as use increases.

There is also an ongoing need to test, develop and refine new types of public and private partnerships between the OER community and commercial entities in the area of content creation that enable both groups to achieve their goals while respecting their differing requirements in terms of openness and profitability. An early example currently in development by a commercial firm involves the creation of an advertiser-supported search tool for OER video. Likewise, an innovative and fast-growing new academic publisher, Flat World Knowledge, Inc., is experimenting with hybrid approaches that make learning materials available free online and charge for printed versions while sharing revenues with authors more generously than previous industry practices.

The OER movement also needs better, more timely and cost-efficient methods to convey information about quality and course-level applicability to end-users of OER, including derivative OER. These methods may include recommendation engines, search systems augmented with quality-related components, open learner and educator surveys, automated quality assessment tools, certifications by discipline-specific professional societies and organizations, new types of OER-oriented social networking systems and other strategies yet to be identified. At the same time, there is also a need to further develop, refine and streamline the two primary methods of creating OER – top-down and bottom-up – to better ensure the quality of the materials and increase the pace of their production.

The two most common methods of ensuring the quality of OER mentioned previously have ardent champions. One, epitomized by MIT's OpenCourseWare and Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative, relies on a centralized system that puts control and responsibility for the quality of the materials in the hands of known academic experts. Rice University's Connexions project and the open, online encyclopedia Wikipedia demonstrate the other primary method of ensuring quality, which involves the creation of self-regulating, volunteer contributors who are responsible for the quality and reliability of the content.

Both of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages. The bottom-up, grassroots method of ensuring the quality of OER is typically less costly and produces material more quickly, but quality can be random and inconsistent. The top-down centralized model produces material that is generally of very high quality but does so more slowly and at considerably higher cost. Over time, the best results are likely to be produced in the fast-evolving continuum that draws on the strengths of each of these models.

Professional and learned societies and subject-specific scholarly organizations may also have an important role to play in assessing and certifying the quality of OER in the future. Currently, a handful of professional societies, including the National Science Teachers Association, are beginning to take on this role. As the production and use of OER continues to grow it seems likely the materials will have an impact on developments within individual fields of study that may compel more of these organizations to get involved. Developing strategies that more swiftly integrate professional and learned societies and subject-specific scholarly organizations into OER quality control procedures is another area where progress can be made. This is also true for groups involved in monitoring and maintaining the quality of instruction in community colleges.

Role of Community Colleges

Community Colleges in the United States serve approximately 7 million students each year. Typically, these colleges feature common course offerings. They also face unique challenges related to their need to serve higher education's most diverse student population. As such, these institutions are uniquely positioned among institutions of higher education to both take advantage of OER opportunities and to become pioneers in teaching through the creative use of OER. With growing national interest in increasing access to higher education, there are enormous opportunities for community colleges that expand their reach. Incorporating OER courseware is a relatively inexpensive way for a community college to increase the number of its offerings, continuously improve course offerings, collaborate with other educational institutions at low cost, and enter new educational arenas.

In times of economic hardships, developing a reputation for affordability through the widespread adoption of free and inexpensive OER could also be a tremendous market advantage. In addition, community colleges who commit to supporting and incentivizing the creation of new OER will establish themselves as leaders among their peers and spread their brand name across the educational landscape.

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