Open Educational Resources

OER in Higher Ed: 'Huge Awareness-Raising Effort Needed'

Open textbook projects are gaining momentum, says Creative Commons' Cable Green, but there is still work to be done.

When it comes to open educational resources (OER) adoption, is the glass half empty or half full? On the one hand, more than 1 billion works have been licensed using Creative Commons since the organization was founded 15 years ago, and in 2015 alone Creative Commons-licensed works were viewed online 136 billion times. Yet awareness of OER in higher education remains low.  Approximately 75 percent of faculty respondents to a 2014 Babson Survey Research Group study didn't know about or couldn't accurately define OER or why it is important.

Changing that situation is the mission of Cable Green, director of open education at Creative Commons and a leading advocate for open policies that ensure publicly funded education materials are freely and openly available to the public. "We still have a huge awareness-raising effort that needs to be done," said Green. "We all need to teach other people about what this is and why it is important."

The Babson study Green cited found that the most significant barrier to wider adoption of OER "remains a faculty perception of the time and effort required to find and evaluate it." According to the survey, 38 percent of faculty members rate the ease of finding OER as "difficult" or "very difficult."

Green took part in a recent Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander to talk about OER trends and adoption. At its most basic level, the use of OER is saving campuses time and money, Green stressed. "When you put an open license on it, other people can use it. They don't have to reinvent the wheel."

He pointed to the B.C. Open Textbook Project in British Columbia, funded by the BC Ministry of Advanced Education, as an example of OER's potential. "They decided they wanted to have a whole project around open textbooks. They were going to have a library of open textbooks as well as faculty reviews of open textbooks, because faculty care a lot about what other faculty think when they are making a decision about whether to adopt or take the time to update or modify a resource," Green explained. "So they started doing that and then they discovered that the University of Minnesota had a very similar project: the Minnesota Open Textbook Library."

That led to a collaboration that is still growing. "Those two got together and said to each other: 'Hey, when you have new textbooks you have put in [your library], let us know and we might put that in our library as well. And when one of your faculty members writes a review of an open textbook, would you be willing to share that review with us?' So they are actually openly licensing the reviews," said Green. Then, California, Oregon and Washington joined because they are sinking a lot of public money into open textbook efforts. They all decided to meet once a year at an Open Text Summit in British Columbia and just share.

"They said, 'Let's not duplicate efforts and let's not waste money' — but we can actually do better than that. We can set plans together. We can divide the labor, so everybody doesn't have to work so hard. We can share the expenses on projects. This group started out with about 12 people, but now there are hundreds attending," said Green.

He pointed to other progress on the OER front in higher education: The University of Maryland University College, the largest nonprofit public online university in the United States, is in the process of matching all course learning outcomes and competencies with open educational resources. The collective savings is estimated to be in the millions for the more than 80,000 students taking classes at UMUC annually. Green added that the Open Education Consortium and the Community College Consortium for Open Education are doing great things.

Green said there is generally a consensus in education that sharing is a good thing, but pointed out that barriers to openness still exist. He asked the Future Trends Forum audience about their experience working with faculty: "Why do most faculty start from a default of closed, and we have to talk with them or persuade about open?"

One instructional technologist from the University of Saskatchewan ventured that faculty members have a tradition of getting paid to write textbooks and being rewarded for writing for specific journals.

Green responded by noting that very few faculty members make much money on textbooks. "One of my favorite quotes of the open access movement is from a faculty member who said, 'I write to be read.' If the reason you are doing research is to share the ideas, to share the science with other people, if they can't read it, what is the point? The only way to be read is to make it open," he asserted. Nevertheless, he said, "There are some antiquated barriers we have in the education system. In higher education, our promotion and tenure rules are outdated. When I go into promotion and tenure, I am told I have to publish in certain journals, and if I publish in open access journals, I might not get as many points. So there are some barriers we have to clear out of the way."

Creative Commons works in more than 85 countries, and having just returned from the Open Education Consortium's Open Education Global Conference in Krakow, Poland, Green reminded the audience that this is a global movement and the focus may vary by each region's needs.

Green said one of the meeting's focal points was linking open data and OER. As more data is collected about how students learn and engage with educational opportunities, researchers are studying how can it be used to create personalized learning pathways. Others are studying how to make course material more relevant and actually help solve problems by linking to civic open data initiatives. For instance, a chemistry teacher would not be using a stale textbook, but real-time data about local pollutants. "There are nice connections being made between open data and OER," he said.

"The mood of the conference was to say let's step back, reassess and ask what are the next steps," said Green. He noted that the in the United States, the focus is primarily on open textbooks because textbooks are so incredibly expensive here, whereas in Europe the focus is on open pedagogy — studying what educators can do when curriculum is open that they can't do when it is closed. What sort of new experiences can happen? In the global south, there is discussion about how many people tend to ignore copyright, and the possibility of challenging copyright regimes. "None are opposed to each other," he said. "They are all part of the discussion, because it is a global movement."

Green recommends people interested in the topic should look at oerstrategy.org, a website devoted to developing a collaborative, coordinated strategy for OER implementation. "It is meant to be a document that looks at the movement, asking the question, 'as OER goes mainstream, what do we need to be better at?' It has a set of value propositions about why OER matters to people, and there are different reasons for different people and that's OK. If textbooks are causing access problems, to the extent that can be solved by OER, great."

He also suggested that people who are interested in studying the pedagogical impact of their OER efforts might contact the Open Education Group, which conducts research on the impact of OER adoption on a range of educational outcomes.

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