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Institutional Strategies for Open Education

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
15th December 2011


Source: Lisa Spiro – New Learning Resources, a NITLE initiative

What types of institutions are most enthusiastic about open educational resources (OER), which are “teaching and learning materials freely available online for everyone to use, whether you are an instructor, student, or self-learner” (OER Commons)?  According to Going the Distance, the ninth annual survey on online learning in the US, 72.4% of the chief academic officers at for-profit universities agree that OER will have value for their institutions, compared with “57 or 58 percent of all but the very largest institutions agreeing (the largest institutions have an agreement level ten points lower at 48 percent).”

Open Access (storefront)

Open Access (storefront) by Gideon Burton

It’s worth noting that a majority of the chief academic officers at all but the largest institutions see OER as having value, but what accounts for the gap between for-profits and other types of institutions? First, most for-profits already have the infrastructure and practices in place to adopt electronic course resources such as OER. As Going the Distance suggests, many for-profit colleges are heavily engaged in online learning; furthermore, they already incorporate e-textbooks in their classes. In addition, for-profits likely see adopting OER as an opportunity to reduce costs. According to the student PIRG’s 2010 report “A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability,” the typical student spends about $900 per year on textbooks. Not only could open textbooks reduce students’ costs by as much as 80%, but they could also pressure publishers to reduce their prices. Some for-profits, such as American Public University System (APUS), bundle textbook costs into tuition, so they have a strong interest in reducing costs. Indeed, APUS recently announced an initiative to recruit its own faculty members to produce e-textbooks, some of which will be released with open licenses.

But it’s not just the for-profits that see strategic advantages in promoting open educational resources. Community colleges, in an effort to lower costs, broaden access, and improve learning and retention, are taking a leadership role in fostering the development and use of OER. According to a 2008 survey of “1,203 faculty from 12 community college districts and 28 colleges” by the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER), 91% were interested in using OER in their classes, but only 34% were currently using them. Various efforts are underway to help community college faculty identify and use appropriate OER. Over 200 community colleges from 15 states now belong to CCCOER, which aims to help community colleges find or produce OER. (CCOER was co-founded by Dr. Judy Baker of Foothill College and two former colleagues in the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, Martha Kanter, now Undersecretary of Education, and Hal Plotkin, now Senior Policy Advisor to Kanter.) As part of the Obama administration’s strategy to broaden access to higher education, the Department of Labor launched a $2 billion program to prepare students for careers in emerging industries and stipulated that any job training resources developed would be released under Creative Commons attribution licenses. However, funding for the program may be in jeopardy. At the state level, as my colleague Bryan Alexander recently noted, the state of Washington’s community college system just released the first phase of its Open Course Library, which currently contains high quality, affordable, adaptable educational materials to support 42 courses. According to the Student Public Interest Research Groups, this project is anticipated to save students at least $1.2 million a year and could save them as much as $41 million annually, assuming every class in the system adopts the textbooks.

Likewise, some research universities see strategic advantages in pursuing open education. Perhaps most notably, in 2001 MIT decided to sharing course resources openly online through its Open CourseWare program, thus contributing to global knowledge, raising its online profile, and enhancing teaching at the university (see Unlocking the Gates). To advance its goals to be “a private university in the public service” and a “globally networked university,” NYU launched an open education pilot project in 2009. For instance, students at NYU’s global campuses could watch a lecture by an NYU faculty member before coming to class, leaving more instructional time for discussion and, in a broader sense, enabling the university “to reinvent the 19th century tutorial model–on a global scale, to boot.” NYU has established a partnership with the open University of the People to “identify” potential students who could enroll at NYU Abu Dhabi; some financial support would be available.

Indeed, “open education” seems to be gaining traction throughout higher education.  The 2010 Horizon Report (disclosure: I served on the advisory board) selected open content as a practice likely to come into mainstream use within one to two years. Openness is a guiding principle of the Next Generation Learning Challenge and is regularly featured at conferences such as the Educause Learning Initiative.  Even publishers and developers of course management systems seem to be jumping on the OER bandwagon. For example, Blackboard recently announced that instructors will be able to share course materials housed in its course management system through a Creative Commons Attribution license, and Pearson launched its “open” learning management system, OpenClass (although, as Audrey Watters suggests, it’s not clear how “open” such systems really are.)

So what about liberal arts colleges in the US? Although several liberal arts colleges (including Trinity, Oberlin, Bucknell, and Hope) have embraced mandates promoting open access to scholarship, I am not aware of many that have made institutional commitments to open educational resources, which focus more on teaching and learning.  For example, US members of the Open Courseware Consortium include research universities (e.g. University of Michigan), community colleges (e.g. Anne Arundel Community College), and even a for-profit (Kaplan University), but I noted only one liberal arts college (Sterling College). Liberal arts colleges do not appear much in three of the major books and reports about open education, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar’s Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, Taylor Walsh’s Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, and Daniel Atkins, John Seely Brown and Allen L. Hammond’s A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievement, Challenges and New Opportunities [PDF]. (If you know of liberal arts colleges that are pursuing open education, please comment on this post.)

Why hasn’t open education been more prominent among liberal arts colleges? Perhaps liberal arts colleges, particularly elite institutions, don’t feel the same pressure to bring down textbook costs that community colleges and for-profits do.  (However, with rising concern about the expense of elite liberal arts colleges and the sustainability of their business models, promoting OER may be one relatively straightforward way to lower costs.) Perhaps they are not fully aware of OER, given that a third of chief academic officers responding to the Going the Distance survey said they are just “somewhat aware” of OER and 13.3% said they are not at all aware of OER. Maybe liberal arts colleges don’t have the resources to pursue open education, or they haven’t been as successful in winning funding for OER initiatives. It could be that there aren’t enough appropriate OER available to support the liberal arts curriculum. (Yale deliberately focused on the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum through its Open Yale project, but currently it offers just video, audio, and transcripts of lectures.  Starting in the spring of 2012, Open Yale will release course-related textbooks for less than $20, but it does not appear that these will have open licenses). Perhaps instructors at liberal arts colleges, who typically select course reading lists, have established preferences for proprietary course materials, worry about the quality of OER, or simply don’t know about open alternatives. In contrast, many instructors at for-profits and at community college have less autonomy in choosing course texts. Perhaps most importantly, liberal arts colleges may not see strong strategic reasons to pursue open education.

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