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2013 May 13 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Opening The Books

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Opening The Books
Open Educational Resources Movement Gathers Momentum
By Paul Bradley

Deep inside the 2012 survey report of the Instructional Technology Council was a finding that commanded the attention of advocates of open educational resources.

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Though ITC surveys have been measuring the impact of distance education and
e-learning at community colleges since 2004, this year’s report marked the first time that respondents were asked about OERs — teaching, learning and research resources that are in the public domain or are released under a licensing agreement that permits their free use or repurposing by others.

The survey found that 36 percent of respondents predicted that OERs would have a significant impact on their institutions over the next five years, while 60 percent said they would have little impact. Just 4 percent said OERs would have no impact.

Those numbers aren’t overwhelming, but for community college advocates trying to grow a nascent OER movement, they were encouraging. Advocates see open education resources as a critical key to college access and success, giving financially-strapped students low-cost or free electronic alternatives to expensive textbooks. Those books, and their skyrocketing price tags, have become a significant barrier to success for low-income students.

OERs have been around for more than a decade, but acceptance in the academy has been slow. Washington state, for example, is a national leader in promoting open course materials. They are widely available, but state officials say only about 105 faculty members or departments have adopted them for use.

OER advocates are at a disadvantage because, among other things, they don’t employ a sales force to try to encourage open-course adoption, like commercial publishers do for their material. Some faculty members are more comfortable working with longtime publishers and familiar material, especially with their built-in assessments, tests and ancillary materials.

The ITC survey quantified some of the barriers. Asked to identify roadblocks to OER adoption, 67 percent of respondents said “faculty time to find and evaluate;” 66 percent cited “lack of faculty awareness;” 45 percent said “credibility of sources;” 21 percent cited “ancillary materials;” and 14 percent said “resistance by administrators.”

But the barriers to OERs might be beginning to fall. Several national initiatives are under way to raise awareness and support them. Foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have funded several OER repositories.

Then there is the U.S. Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative – the $2 billion, four-year grant program for the development and expansion of innovative training programs. Under the initiative, participating colleges are obliged to provide access to free, digital learning materials for the courses they develop. All education materials developed through the grants will be available for use by the public and other education providers through an open license.

“That’s huge,” said Una T. Daly, community college outreach manager for the Open Courseware Consortium, a free and open digital publication of college- and university-level educational materials “The idea is that this material, funded with public money, should not be locked up behind a copyright and then sold back to the public. The thought is that we should own the content.”

The federal initiative could bring some order to the OER movement, which currently has something of a Wild West quality. There are volumes of material available with just a few clicks of a computer mouse, but quality varies widely, and peer review is spotty. Sometimes, it’s hard for faculty to know what they’re getting.

That is one of the issues being addressed by William Preston Davis, director of instructional services at Northern Virginia Community College. Davis is spearheading an effort to create a general education certificate program at the college using nothing but open educational resources.

Virginia community colleges have awarded a dozen grants to faculty members teaching in community colleges to boost the use of OERs in high-enrollment courses including English, psychology, biology, business, chemistry, history, mathematics and information technology.

Under the NVCC effort, 12 textbook-free courses will be offered at the college in the fall in courses including introductory English, math and history. Students will be able to take the courses as an entire certificate program or individually.

In choosing faculty to participate in the initiative, Davis selected those with a history of high-quality, innovative instruction, familiarity and online teaching pedagogy and prior use of open course content.

Faculty members are working in teams with instructional designers, who are the content delivery experts, and librarians, who are expert in finding OER material. Teams are working together in developing online tests and assessments, which Davis said is a critically important piece. He plans to carefully measure persistence and success rates.

Davis hopes the initiative will increase awareness of OERs at the college and help faculty to identify and create OER content.

But the primary goal of the program is to reduce the cost of a college education by eliminating the need for students to buy expensive textbooks. According to the American Enterprise Institute, the cost of academic textbooks has increased by 812 percent over the past three decades, spiraling upward faster than health-care, home prices, and inflation.

“There is a real concerted effort to lower the costs to students,” Davis said. “The students that we attract have a limited amount of money. The costs of textbooks can cause students to have to decide which books to buy and which ones not to. That’s not equal opportunity. That’s a barrier to success.”

Davis said a student completing the entire OER general education certificate would save $1,845 over the cost of traditional textbook-based courses. If 30 students were enrolled in each of the 12 sections next fall, students would save a total of more than $55,000.

“Even if a student takes just a couple of courses, they can save a significant amount of money and have equal access to all course materials,” he said.

Those were the same things that Lisa M. Storm had in mind when she decided to write a textbook for a criminal law course she teaches at Hartnell College in California. A senior faculty member teaching law, Storm has long been an innovator. She developed the only fully online degree and certificate program at Hartnell and created an accelerated (three-semester) online degree program in Administration of Justice.

“I was getting frustrated because the cost of textbooks was really escalating,” she said. “My students were spending more on textbooks than they were on tuition.”

She began searching open resource material on criminal law, but found little available, so she decided to write her own book. Her “Criminal Law” textbook was published in 2012 by Flat World Knowledge, which has been publishing online, open college textbooks since 2007.

The online textbook is replete with multi-media features attractive to today’s students. Students can access the book for $19.95. By comparison, a typical, traditional criminal law textbook can cost $200. She estimates her students have saved more than $150,000 in textbook costs.

She’s writing a second textbook that will be published next year.

Storm said her efforts, and those of Davis, should propel the OER movement forward. Faculty will be more comfortable using open educational resources if they see others doing it successfully.

“It’s all about increasing access,” she said. “I really think that if we can solve the textbook affordability problem once and for all, it will increase access and success.”

It’s Your Turn  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: Has your college embraced OERs?
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