Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Let’s Be Open: Answering the Big 5 Questions About Open Content for Your Classroom

The average community college student spends over $1200 annually on classroom textbooks. That means that students who complete their learning in two years will have spent close to a single-semester’s worth of their money on textbooks.  Nearly two-thirds of students at some point have not bought a textbook because of the cost (and that too has taken a toll on most of their performances within those courses). Though many of us are not aware of the specific numbers, we implicitly know and witness the result of expensive textbooks in our classes. 

For many instructors, textbooks (and their often steep prices) are a necessary evil.  Some will find ways of lessening the burden put on students by having copies available in the library for in-library use or allowing students to purchase earlier (and therefore, cheaper) editions.  But in a given course section, we’re still likely generating hundreds if not thousands of dollars profit for publishers at our students’ expense. 

But does it have to be this way?  What if the course resources and materials can be made entirely free or significantly cheap enough so that no student is making a choice between books and life expenses?  This possibility is not the future.  It is now and it’s time we take advantage of it. 
Image:  Sign: Open Educational Resources
Image of OER logo
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OER_Logo.svg

What are Open Educational Resources?

Open Education Resources (OER) are media-rich online repositories with content that faculty can use for free for their courses.  This includes but is not limited to:  textbooks, short-reads, videos, sound recordings, assignment guidelines, course notes, and even entire course packages.  The purpose of these repositories is to make materials available for all students and faculty on all subjects so that we spend less time on “reinventing the wheel” of course content and more time on engaging with our students around the course content.  Many of them are in the public domain or have what is called a Creative Commons license. Here are few examples.

What about access?

An immediate question of access arises with OER as they are internet based, and not all students have access to a computer (though in a 2012 NSCC technology study did show that 86% of students have laptops--to say nothing of any other devices). But let’s look at the logistics of this concern.

If a student does not have the $120 for the textbook, there is a good chance that he/she gets zero access.  In that scenario, if the argument is that one can put the book on reserve at the library for the student to use--the same argument holds true for access for OER.  Since our libraries have public-use computers, OER in this comparison is more accessible, because the student can access the online material from both campus libraries or any library that allows computer access (which is many, if not all, on the North Shore).

But if it is important to have the physical copy, many places offering free textbooks online, such as OpenStax, provide the student an opportunity to purchase a cheap print-copy of the book for $30.  For many textbooks in the math and sciences that can mean over $100 savings.

Finally, there is no delay in access with OER.  Students can access all of the content as soon as the course starts.  Instructors no longer need worry about issues of financial aid delays, late shipping by the publishers, or other issues that regularly interfere with the course lift-off. 

What about stability?

The belief that the internet is more unstable than the textbook industry might need some reconsidering.  Firstly, it should be acknowledged that textbook publishing has its own instabilities including the ability to cease publishing the book being used or to publish newer editions that may be inferior, pricier, or change things up enough to have to revise the course layout.

Secondly, even if the textbook arrives in the bookstore, many students may still have to leap through hoops to get their financial aid to cover the books (or even not have enough to cover it).  The instability of those first few weeks leaves many faculty skipping or delaying the use of course content.

Thirdly, OER content is often capable of being downloaded, edited, and inserted directly into a course shell.  This means that their stability is much more assured than the textbook.  If this is a significant concern, then one should make sure to make flexibility to download a criteria for selecting OER materials.  Though in truth, this isn’t really much of a concern any more since content available in one OER repository is often duplicated into another--that is, there are back-ups of back-ups across the Internet.

Finally, again, the content is present and ready to go from the start of the semester.  Many of us have been caught in the situation where we don’t find out until too late that the textbook we want wasn’t ordered or not enough were ordered and are left scrambling to cobble together the rest of the semester.  OER materials are available at the start and throughout the semester.

Image:  Open Educational Resources - Property of Everyone sign
Image CC:

What about quality?

Some perceive OER as lower quality because they are free.  Of course, psychological studies have shown that price influences perception.  That $200 biology textbook must be awesome whereas that free biology textbook must be a poor comparison.  Saying that there are a lot of poor selections in the OER somehow implies that this isn’t the case with textbooks, but of course, we know that’s not true.  We can look to James Loewen’s famous book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong and other similar research as a reminder of that.

Will there be poor OER material out there?  Absolutely.  However, there will also be really great content.  By using and promoting OER material, instructors will play an important role in helping colleagues sift out the good from the bad--just like they do already with textbooks.

However, OER also has the potential to deliver better content in three capacities.

  • Updating content:  Updating content in OER materials is much easier than in a textbook and the beauty is that updated content will not require another new (and costly) edition.
  • Customizing content:  Add, edit, or delete the OER resource so that it fits exactly how you want to use the material.
  • Shifting content:  Why stick with just one OER object?  Instructors can weave together the perfect course materials from numerous sources, rather than a one-size fits all source.

What about time?

Converting to using OER materials will take time.  There’s no question about it.  But it is time well spent, not only for your students, but for the college and academia in general.  Also, it doesn’t mean, however, that one must reinvent all of one’s courses in a single semester, but develop a strategy for how to do so in the long run.  Start with replacing one item in one course and slowly grow from there.  Faculty can also work with Instructional Technology and Design as well as the library who support such projects and will be releasing a LibGuide shortly on OER for faculty.  It will take time, but so do these things:

Finding new texts for a course (because the book went out of print).

  • Dealing with new editions of the same textbook you’re using and updating course references to the textbook.
  • Delays in teaching and learning because students don’t have access to the textbook.  
  • Answering questions about whether different versions of the textbook are acceptable.
Moreover, these things happen time and again, year after year.

Making students pay for any content beyond the course itself is the college’s means of externalizing costs at the expense of our students, and we do so for the profit of book publishers.   The final analysis is that using open educational resources not only empowers you as the instructor, it provides better access and fewer challenges to our students.  OER also fulfills the community college’s vision for civic responsibility by using, sharing, and even developing open educational resources for the public’s benefit.

This article was originally published in The EdTech Edge.  Please check it out to see other great articles about instructional technology at North Shore Community College.