Washington, D.C. — The textbook-laden terrain of higher education could become easier and less expensive to traverse as more institutions embrace Open Educational Resources, or OER.
That was one of scenarios explored during a panel discussion on Tuesday that sought to delineate how the evolution of the digital materials could turn the tide on traditional textbooks — and potentially put an end to the pricey bookstore experience that has long been the bane of college students of modest means.
“We desperately need to see if this is working for people, making college more affordable and giving students the knowledge and skills they need to drive this knowledge economy going forward,” Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter said Tuesday at the event titled “Open Source Higher Education: What Is It and Who Is It For?”
The gathering was held at the Center for American Progress, or CAP, and led by Louis Soares, outgoing director of the Postsecondary Education Program at CAP.
Open Educational Resources includes course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, podcasts and other materials designed for teaching and learning that are “openly available for use by educators and students, without any accompanying need to pay royalties or license fees,” according to a primer distributed at Tuesday’s event.
OER involves more than making materials accessible in digital form.
Rather, according to the CAP primer, “OER gives the user free (no-cost) access to educational resources along with permission to revise, reuse, remix and redistribute the content of those educational resources.”
The potential for having a work changed drew criticism from one academic in the audience, who likened the modification of one of his texts to drawing a mustache on a great painting.
“It’s my work,” the academic said. “The world may think it’s an improvement, but I may not.”
However, the panelists noted that in the world of OER, works would continue to be available in their original form.
Despite concerns about converting the content of courses and curricula into a collegiate Wikipedia of sorts, speakers pointed out the benefits of having malleable materials in the higher education market.
When panel moderator Rebecca Klein-Collins, director of research for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, asked how to ensure quality control for OER materials, panelist Sally Johnstone, vice president for Academic Advancement at Western Governors University, an online university, said WGU judges the quality of the materials in part on the feedback it gets from students.
“Our students let us know immediately if certain learning resources are not useful to them,” Johnstone said. “Red lights go off.”
“In addition to that,” Johnstone continued, “students find what they need and what works for them.”
“Most of the students know how to go out and find resources, and when they find resources that are very useful for their mastery in their particular area of study, they share it with their peers.”
She said WGU was searching for ways to facilitate such student-to-student sharing via social networking.
WGU has been buying Open Educational Resource materials from Flatworld Knowledge.
“Flatworld Knowledge has a very interesting framework that we make good use of,” Johnstone said. “We can use their e-texts but we pay them $20 per student per class. That’s a huge savings when you think about the cost of textbooks.”
Michael Carroll, a law professor at American University, said there is no tension between the issue of quality and access to open educational resources. Contrarily, he said, OER can potentially be of higher quality because they are not only subject to pre-publication review but post-publication peer review as well.
He said the key challenge is to find ways to adapt to an OER environment.
“The 21st century is going to be this century of open materials,” Carroll said. “We need business models that know how to take these open inputs and create wealth, jobs and innovation out of those.”
Panelist Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate with Student PIRGs and director of the Make Textbooks Affordable project, said OER will play a vital role in making college less costly.
“Textbook prices have been rising about four times the rate of inflation in for the last few decades,” Allen said. “It’s gotten to the point where students can’t afford materials for their classes.”
Steve Carson, director of external relations at MIT OpenCourseWare, said there are three big challenges associated with realizing the potential of OER.
The first challenge is that OER operates within what Carson referred to as an “immature ecosystem.”
The second challenge involves sustainability. He related that while MIT has generated $350,000 in donations from onsite visitors to its OER materials and has secured undisclosed amounts from corporate sponsors, opportunities to support OER are just beginning to emerge.
The third challenge, Carson said, is “resistance of incumbents,” including the publishing industry and the world of academe.
“Universities are one of the big pieces of resistance to the OER movement,” Carson said. “It’s very hard to change the university and change the way that people do their jobs at the university.”