Open Educational Practice: Unleashing the Potential of OER

Open Educational Practice: Unleashing the Potential of OER


It’s been a good year for open educational resources (OER). Nearly 40 community colleges throughout the U.S. made commitments this year to establish entire degree programs based solely on OER. Governor Jerry Brown set aside $5 million for OER degree programs in California community colleges. And scores of school districts throughout the United States committed to adopting OER, thanks in large part to the #GoOpen campaign spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Many of these efforts are driven by the economic benefit that OER provides to students. OER, which are free, openly licensed and repurposeable educational materials, have been shown to measurably decrease the cost of attending college, in some cases by up to 25 percent. These cost savings are improving educational access for hundreds of thousands of students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But “free” is not the only important characteristic of OER. The real potential for OER to improve education is in its open license. In contrast to “all rights reserved” copyright, OER are licensed to allow anyone, anywhere, anytime to reuse, repurpose and redistribute the content.

Karen Stout, president and CEO of the college reform network Achieving the Dream, explained the true value of OER in a recent Huffington Post article: “Using open resources in instruction can create the customized and personalized learning that has the promise to open up our classrooms to those students who so need to be freed from its current construct.”

Using the full potential of OER by intentionally leveraging the open licenses is called open educational practice (OEP, or sometimes Open Pedagogy). While adoption of OER is beginning to pick up steam, driven largely by the economic argument, OEP is still in its infancy. Both individual faculty members and entire organizations are leading the way, often by taking advantage of the world’s largest repository of openly licensed educational content: Wikipedia.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of OEP began back in 2008 at the University of British Columbia, when a professor of Spanish decided to leverage the potential of OER by working with his students to improve and author Wikipedia articles related to Latin American literature. The success of the project, called “ Murder, Madness and Mayhem,” was remarkable, with students producing three “featured” articles and eight “good” articles, as rated by the Wikipedia community. When one thinks about the traditional disposable assignments students are asked to complete in most higher-education courses, the authentic contribution made by these students at UBC is tangible evidence of improved teaching and learning.

Other examples of faculty pushing the envelope on OEP include David Wiley, who structured his Instructional Design course at Brigham Young University around the adaptation and improvement of an open textbook on project management; Amin Azzam, who created a medical school elective course at the University of California, San Francisco to encourage doctors-in-training to become editors and curators of Wikipedia’s medical information pages; and Jonathan Hunt, who uses Wikipedia as the primary platform for helping students at the University of San Francisco hone their writing skills.

In addition to these individual faculty members, several organizations are now trying to push OEP to scale. The Wikimedia Foundation has an in-house project devoted to encouraging faculty and students throughout the world to edit and author Wikipedia articles in an academic setting. The Wiki Education Foundation recently spun out of the Wikimedia Project and supports thousands of faculty across North America in their use of Wikipedia in the classroom. Others, like Open Osmosis, are building technology to make leveraging the open license of OER easier at scale.

But is OEP an effective way for students to learn? Early evidence says yes. A recent report from the Wiki Education Foundation reveals that for the month of April 2016, students contributed 6 percent of all edits across all of the science-related articles on Wikipedia. This means tens of thousands of students are engaging in authentic learning experiences by creating—not just consuming—knowledge. And this form of open educational practice is making knowledge creation and sharing more equitable. As a direct result of efforts to support faculty and students to use Wikipedia in the classroom, more women are now contributing to the world’s largest encyclopedia: While nearly 90 percent of all Wikipedians are male, 68 percent of college student editors are women.

OER advocates will (and should) continue to encourage faculty and institutions to adopt open content. The need to increase access and reduce the cost of higher education is compelling, and OER offers part of the solution. But, as more and more faculty adopt OER, the opportunity to leverage the open license to improve teaching and learning will only grow larger. Now that a handful of innovative faculty have led the way, it’s time for others to follow.

TJ Bliss (@tjbliss) is a program officer in the Education Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. 

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