As OER Grows Up, Advocates Stress More Than Just Low Cost

EdSurge Podcast

As OER Grows Up, Advocates Stress More Than Just Low Cost

By Jeffrey R. Young and Sydney Johnson     Jan 15, 2019

As OER Grows Up, Advocates Stress More Than Just Low Cost

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

Open educational resources hit a turning point in 2018. For the first time ever, the federal government put forward funds to support initiatives around open educational resources, and recent studies show that faculty attitudes towards using and adapting these openly-licensed learning materials are steadily improving.

But fans of OER are increasingly facing a problem. While OER started off as free online textbooks, it still costs money to produce these materials, and professors often need guidance finding which ones are high quality.

So OER advocates are realizing they need to change their pitch. While cost is still a big part of the draw, people are increasingly talking about student success and pointing to the fact that when these textbooks are open and unlicensed online, that lets professors customize them in new ways and improve the quality of the education.

This week on the EdSurge On Air podcast, we're diving into how the OER movement is changing, and we'll check in with a couple of people on the front lines of the movement to hear from them. We spoke with Nicole Allen, director of open education at SPARC, a coalition that works to promote open sharing for scholarly publishing and academic resources, and Julie Lang, the OER Coordinator for Penn State University, to hear what is happening on the frontlines of the open movement.

You can find the full discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. Listen and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. The highlights below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

In March 2018, Congress funded the Open Textbook Pilot, a $5-million grant program that supports higher-education institutions that want to use, create or offer open textbooks to save students money.

Nicole Allen: It was the first time Congress had ever put money directly toward open educational resources and it was part of the overall college affordability budget set aside. It's a really strong message from congress that not only textbook affordability is part of the national strategy for higher ed affordability but that open educational resources are the way to go to achieve that.

Student legislatures are getting into the act as well.

Allen: There are various approaches to open educational resources legislation that we see across states, some put funding towards it, some require OER marking in course catalogs, others create task forces or do studies.

Interesting things are happening at individual campuses, too. Julie Lang is the OER Coordinator for Penn State University, where she manages efforts to promote open course materials. She said jobs like hers are popping up at colleges around the country.

Julie Lang: We just talked with University of Central Florida and they're hiring what they call an Affordable Content Librarian. I've also heard through the open education librarian that I work with at Penn State that other institutions are doing the same thing. They might call the position a different name, but the purpose of the position is to help faculty utilize either library resources or affordable resources, at Penn State we say affordable is $50 or under per course, or utilize OER. So I do think the libraries are really looking at this and most of the positions I've heard of are in that area.

What have faculty attitudes been like towards this?

Lang: The response has been great with faculty. They're very interested in it, they want to learn more about it and I think they have the awareness that this is something we need to do for retention too.

Penn State even set up a grant program for faculty who want to develop an open textbook of their own. Lang explains how it works:

Lang: Faculty have to either adapt an OER resource, so either remixing or adding some of their own content to something that already exists, or they can author a new text. Authoring is for the folks that really want to create something because they are not finding something to meet their needs. So some examples of that is first our open Spanish textbook, it is customized every semester based on the majors of the students in the course. We also have a hospitality management authoring project which we're going to be doing some video and photos from the kitchen area the students can use but to provide them with some of that information up front before they actually get there in the physical space. So that's just some examples of things that faculty wanted to do that they were not able to do before this grant program.

Both Lang and Allen say that professors see other benefits besides saving students money and that they're trying to do more these days to explain those things.

Allen: Historically, the open education movement has gotten a lot of traction, especially here in the United States around costs because that is such a pain point at our institutions. [Cost] was kind of the foot in the door, but that's not going to be the conversation going forward. We've gotten to the point where conversations about the bigger picture of open are happening, not just among thought leaders but among faculty members and librarians and students, which is really exciting because the true value of open isn't about reducing costs, but it's about creating the ability for people to make content better.

Part of the challenge to getting faculty or policymakers on board with OER is that not everyone agrees on what open really is. Some think that only free online resources should qualify as OER, while others say that OER materials can cost money, if there's a small fee that needs to defray their creation. You can see that confusion playing out in various efforts involving OER, whether it's state legislation or course catalogs.

But OER advocates like Allen say the definitions should be simple.

Allen: It's one of those cases where definitions really matter. Open means something very specific, and that's that the resource is both free and it is released with the permissions to freely use it in all of the ways that are allowed on the internet. So reuse, revise, remix, redistribute.

Meanwhile, traditional for profit publishers are starting to take notice, and that's meant even more confusion around what's really “open.”

Allen: Ten years ago the messaging from the traditional publishing industry was very much along the lines of “there's no free lunch,” and “how could free materials possibly be high quality?” They pointed to the fact that there weren't many examples of open education resources, and it's been interesting to see the evolution.

Now we've seen most of the largest [textbook] companies now have some kind of OER product or product that they call OER and are using openly licensed content which is good in the sense that it shows that this is viable. But it's also challenging because the way that they're interpreting the idea of openness is not the way that this community thinks of openness.

The way that traditional publishers think about OER is that it has an open license on it. If you have an open license, it lets anybody do anything that they want with the material as long as they follow the attribution requirements. What publishers have been doing is taking open content and then wrapping it up in a platform or a product that they then sell to students. So it may be available on the internet for free but if you're using it in a course, you're going to have to pay for it. That's not open. From our perspective, open is about letting anyone do anything they want with content, add value to it, innovate upon it and it's great that the traditional publishers and finding this content valuable. But where we draw the line is when you apply the term open to something that's closed.

What the traditional publishers get is a bunch of high quality content that they can use for free and add value to. They don't also get to call it open when it's being delivered in a closed way.

Do you think that publishers are worried about this?

Lang: I do, I really do. I've spoken with some recently and they're all trying to figure out ways to fill the niche. What I mean by that is open content is out there, you can get it, anybody can use it, you can give students a link. But the missing piece is putting it all together and building some kind of cohesive thing, which we're hoping to do with the affordable course transformation. But publishers see that as an opportunity to use proprietary systems to provide a more than just open content—they utilize interactive and personalized learning environments and then package it with OER and try to make it affordable for students that way.

So could there be a future where publishers essentially become adaptive learning software companies?

Lang: I really think so, yeah. I was talking with someone yesterday, and they said that's exactly what their company’s doing.

So what's next?

Allen: We are continuing to push for federal funding for open educational resources, so we actually got the five million open textbook pilot renewed in the most recent budget so the Department of Education will be putting out new call for proposals on that in the next year or so. So that's a really great opportunity for institutions to put together new projects and new ideas to help really advance the fields.

We are looking ahead to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In 2008, when it was last reauthorized, Congress passed some provisions requiring textbook price disclosure and requiring institutions to mark text book prices in course catalogs, and I think there's going to be an interesting conversation about what's next in the Higher Education Act.

Certainly making an OER grant program permanent is one of the things that we'll push for, but there are also potential statutory changes that we could make to help make sure that there is standardized ways of marking OER in course catalogs. There are at least four states doing that.

Lang: From what I've read and what I'm kind of looking at I feel like there is going to be more of a push to involve students in the OER creation process. I think that's happening. So, I don't know how that will play out but I think that more faculty are going to be going in that direction and really kind of harnessing the power of OER to be customizable, adaptable, and the fact that students can contribute to it as part of their course work.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

The EdSurge Podcast

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up