Sunday, March 24, 2013



Has anyone out there been part of a large scale experiment with Open Educational Resources?

Open Educational Resources are free course materials, typically online, that students can use in place of traditional textbooks, lab manuals, and the like.  The idea behind them is twofold: they save money, and because they’re digital and open, they’re subject to continuous improvement.  (If a textbook has a mistake, you have to wait until the next edition to get it corrected.  If an online resource has a mistake, it could be corrected immediately.  The Spring edition of a text could include corrections from the Fall.)  In the best cases, the publishers use data analytics to improve the usefulness of the materials from semester to semester.

Although free websites have existed for some time now, OER as a movement looks just about ready for prime time.  Several foundations have put resources into them, so there’s a choice of multiple providers.  Reading platforms have improved tremendously, so now a student wouldn’t necessarily have to sit at a computer to read.  (Ipads, kindles, and various android tablets should be able to handle them.  And used/refurb versions of those are getting cheaper all the time.)  With the plethora of platforms, I hope, will come much greater access for students with disabilities.  Print textbooks can be a nightmare for disability access, but platforms like ipads are often much friendlier to students who need other ways to get the material.

From a cost perspective, the appeal is obvious.  For most students, what matters is total cost, rather than the split between tuition/fees and books.  If we could zero out the cost of books, then even with a small tuition/fee increase, the total cost to the student still drops significantly.  That’s especially true at community colleges, where the ratio of book cost to tuition/fee cost tends to be the highest.  (Our courses may be less expensive, but our books typically aren’t.)  To the extent that students are either borrowing money or working their way through at minimum wage, saving a few hundred bucks a semester on books is nothing to sneeze at.

Of course, there’s always a catch, which is why I’m hoping to hear from people who have actually tried teaching with OER.  (Alternately, I’d also like to hear from students who took courses that used OER.)  

In thinking through the details, I’m struck by a few possible obstacles:

-- Hardware.  If you need to spend, say, two hundred bucks on a kindle fire or something similar in order to take advantage of OER, then it’s probably a break-even proposition at best if only one course is using it.  You’d need to amortize the cost over multiple sections, and preferably multiple semesters, to really capture the savings.  I’m not entirely sure how to do that within the confines of financial aid.  If the material is platform-independent -- which is why I’m still a little hesitant about itunes u -- then it’s hard to specify any one device on which to read it.  But if we don’t specify and mandate a device, I’m not sure that financial aid could cover it.

-- Breadth of adoption.  This refers both to faculty across disciplines, and to faculty within a single discipline.  Given that the savings really appear only when a student has multiple courses with OER, the usual “start small with a pilot” method doesn’t necessarily make sense.  When every professor is entitled to choose her own materials, and many adjuncts are hired relatively late in the game, I’m not sure how to effectively encourage wide enough adoption to make the hardware purchase and learning curve worthwhile for the students.

-- Quality.  My impression is that quality has improved dramatically over the last few years, and I’m just old enough to remember faculty (including myself) complaining about the low quality of traditional textbooks.  But faculty in each discipline would still need both the time and the inclination to wade through what’s out there to see what’s up to snuff.

-- Ancillary materials.  One of the ways that traditional publishers battle the used textbook market is by bundling new books with workbooks, lab manuals, website access codes, test banks, and the like.  In some disciplines, the ancillary materials amount to a significant portion of the appeal.  I don’t know to what extent the OER stuff is competitive with that, at least at this point.  (I’d love to be wrong on this, though.)

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who have experienced teaching with OER from either the facuty or the student side, what should those of us who are intrigued by the prospect know before jumping in?

As someone who used to have several textbooks open at once, I'll point out another problem: limited screen space. An iPad is a bit smaller than a single page of a textbook, and when opened a textbook displays two pages. It's the difference between a single screen with powerpoint and several blackboards full of notes, in terms of being able to quickly glance back at what you read a couple of minutes ago.

I like my iPad, and E.O.Wilson's Life on Earth is a can't-miss bio textbook at $2, but it is different than reading a paper textbook — and not just because it has moving pictures.
I have now been using open source material for about 4 years. When I had a chance to review course outlines I made sure to include open sources, or what they call gnu licenses.

The platform issue is similar to calculators. Some classes require more expensive devices, but most do not. I now work with 3 different calculators, all under $15, and the students do not mind that price.

The graphing calculators are simply too expensive when the web offers many open source graphing devices.

I restrict my materials to java-based software so school facilities can be used. Some student have the material printed.

Another low cost alternative is to use past editions of a text book which can be purchased online for pennies-- the editions do not change that much, the ancillary materials are not worth it and we live with the fact that those publisher codes are expired.

I prefer to do those things because I am a respecter of copyright. Some professors are now blatantly copying from various textbooks and shamelessly selling the material to students openly, and for much more one would pay for a used book. The admins turn a blind eye.

OTOH, publishers visit us yearly and give us lavish new editions, and I always point out to them that those books are simply too expensive given the economic landscape of our community.

If publishers were smart they would print cheaper copies of the materials.

Gone are the days when you could use you older brother's books in school.

I feel sorry for the adjuncts-- they are on their own.

Publishers do publish cheaper copies of their text in lower-income countries. You can buy them on the Internet.

As for copyright, fair use (US) or fair dealing (Canada) permits the use of limited excerpts in classroom use. Single chapters are usually OK:
I actually use an open source textbook in the physics course that I teach at Proprietary Art School. I wrote the book myself, and made it available for free download by students in the course. They can do anything they want with it. They can print it, edit it, and mark it up. They can store it on their hard drives or flash drives and they can keep it there as long as they please. They can read it on the platform of their choice, and they can even e-mail a copy to others if they so desire. The students seemed to like this approach.

My students also had access to an e-book version of a popular physics text, but I don’t think that any of the students actually looked at this e-book. Student access to the e-book comes with all sorts of annoying digital rights management restrictions—they can only stream the contents and can’t download a copy to their computers, they can’t print it, they can’t e-mail copies to others, they often can’t read it on the platform of their choice, and their access to the e-book expires after a year or so.

I am sort of old-fashioned and am used to having a dead-tree book in my hands. I still have the textbooks that I used in college, and I consult them from time to time. I can’t really do this with an e-book. It seems that I don’t really own an e-book in the same sense that I own my old-fashioned textbooks--I only rent the e-book for a limited time, subject to all sorts of irritating restrictions on what I can do with it.

I teach at a proprietary school, and it is not clear if the educational and fair use exemptions in American copyright law apply to us. Because of this uncertainty, our management has adopted an extremely draconian view of copyright law. They claim that simply because we are a for-profit institution, the same copyright exemptions that apply to nonprofit educational institutions do not apply to us. This means that we cannot hand out short excerpts from copyrighted books, that we cannot play a copyrighted song in class, that we cannot display copyrighted photos in our PowerPoint presentations, and that we cannot show a copyrighted movie in class, at least not without obtaining permission from the copyright owner and paying a royalty.

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