Open Education Resources | Feature

Bringing Open Education to the Mainstream

Large-scale open education initiatives, like M.I.T.'s OpenCourseWare or Rice University's Connexions, have the potential to change the landscape of higher education by creating a learning community that spreads beyond the walls of the university, providing students and faculty with free, high-quality resources and materials from diverse sources. Yet with all that promise, wide-scale adoption of open education resources remains slow. What's the hold-up?

One problem, cites Rice University professor and Connexions founder Richard Baraniuk, is that the current open education landscape as a whole is quite fragmented. "There are all of these open ed depositories, but you can't easily mix and match across platforms, let alone search across them," he explains. Often, open education proponents focus on the idea of instructors sharing their resources, rather than on the end user who’s attempting to access those resources.

Faculty bandwidth is also an issue. "There are a lot of faculty members out there who really believe in the idea of Open Ed, but they're very busy," says Baraniuk. "They're teaching a lot of classes. They'd like to participate in open access initiatives and save their students money, but they need something more than just a community they can participate in. We realized that if the open ed movement was ever going to go mainstream, it needed to cross this chasm, and it needed to evolve in a way that isn't just focused on sharing. There needs to be a focus on creating quality, turn-key, adoptable solutions."

Rice University’s OpenStax College initiative was created to help streamline access to open education resources. OpenStax is an open access textbook initiative, offering faculty access to free, high-quality textbooks available in a number of formats: via the web, as an e-textbook, or as a hard copy. The first five textbooks in the series--Physics, Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology--have been completed, and the Physics and Sociology textbooks are currently available for review at "We're trying to address the highest impact community college courses, as defined by the total number of students enrolled in a particular course multiplied by the average cost of that course's materials for the student," explains Baraniuk, who serves as the Director of the OpenStax College initiative. A number of schools have signed on to adopt the Physics and Sociology books for the fall 2012 semester, at which time the remaining three completed textbooks will be available for review on the OpenStax site. Fifteen more books are being developed over the next year.

Although the textbooks that are available through OpenStax are free to faculty and students, they were not written by volunteers. Using philanthropic funding, Baraniuk and the team behind OpenStax contracted professional content developers to write the books, and each book went through the industry-standard review cycle, including peer review and classroom testing. The books are scope- and sequence-compatible with traditional textbooks, and they contain all of the ancillary materials such as PowerPoint slides, test banks, and homework solutions. The initiative makes every effort to ensure that the open ed textbooks are a totally viable alternative to traditional texts. Says Baraniuk, "If there isn't a turn-key, adoptable open ed textbook available, then instructors have no recourse but to assign an expensive textbook. We wanted to create materials that an instructor could suggest to their students with confidence, knowing that their students are saving up to $200 on a single textbook."

Baraniuk refers to the OpenStax books as "living textbooks." Each book has its own dashboard, called StaxDash. Along with displaying institutions that have adopted the book, StaxDash is also a real-time erratum tracker: Faculty who are using the books are encouraged to submit errors or problems they've found in the text. "There's also the issue of pointing out aspects of the text that need to be updated," notes Baraniuk, "for example, keeping the Sociology book up-to-date as the Arab Spring continues to evolve. People can post these issues, and our pledge is that we are going to fix any issues as close to 'in real time' as possible. These books will be up-to-date in a matter of hours or days instead of years." When accessing a book through its URL on Connexions, students and faculty will always get the most up-to-date version of the book. Faculty can, however, use the "version control" feature on Connexions to lock in a particular version of the book for use throughout a semester.

Of course, the community and customization components of open education still exist within OpenStax. The web versions of the OpenStax textbooks were built on the Connexions XML platform. Once an instructor adopts a book, he or she has the ability to remove unwanted chapters, or change the order of the chapters to meet the needs of the course calendar. Connexions also gives instructors the ability to add new material to the book, or edit the material in the book. Baraniuk sees this ability to customize the material as a useful way to reach different kinds of learners.

"Currently the Physics textbook is very similar to all of the other college physics textbooks out there," he remarks. "But it's a living textbook, so eventually there will be this tree of different versions that are geared toward specific kinds of students with specific kinds of backgrounds or contexts." The platform is also highly accessible for students with disabilities, and all of the content in the books is semantically marked up.

Still, Baraniuk sees the savings, not the ability to create customized course content, as the key to bringing open education into the mainstream. "The problem is that there's not enough open ed resources in people's hands yet. We first need to get books into people's hands; then we can get faculty on board with customizing their books," he says. "Ultimately we'll be moving from a world of better access and cheaper materials to a world of vastly improved learning outcomes."

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.

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