Tuesday, May 23, 2017


OER, Vertical and Horizontal

Why is there funding for the vertical development of OER, but not for horizontal?

OER refers to Open Educational Resources, which are free alternatives to commercial instructional materials (such as textbooks).  They’re usually electronic, though it’s commonplace to have printed copies available at nominal cost.  As regular readers know, I’m a fan of OER.  They remove the obstacle of textbook cost, thereby allowing professors to insist that every student have the course materials from the first day of class.  

They aren’t free to develop, of course.  That’s especially true in disciplines like math, where the textbook also needs to come with homework assignments, quizzes, and the like.  Instructors need time to wade through the thickets of material to find (or build on, or help develop) the best stuff for what they’re teaching.  Over the long term, it can pay off in vastly improved student success, but there is a short-term cost.  It’s the sort of thing for which grants are ideal: smallish, non-recurring upfront cost, followed by long-term benefit.  It’s a textbook case, no pun intended, of when the concept of “seed money” actually makes sense.

But the OER grants out there tend to reward “vertical” development, rather than horizontal.  And that’s not necessarily the best way to go.

By vertical, I’m referring to an entire degree path.  Tidewater Community College’s “z-degree” in business administration is the exemplar.  Every class that students take in the program uses all OER, including the Gen Ed classes.  That means they got folks from English, math, the social sciences, and the rest to sign on.  

I admire what they’ve been able to do, but in the short run, it’s not practical for many places.  If I have to get every department across the Gen Ed field to sign up, it could take years.  And in the meantime, students would continue either paying money they don’t have, or simply not buying books and having their performance suffer.  

Horizontal development focuses instead on some high-enrollment classes first, leaving the specialized stuff for later.  Instead of picking one degree program (or a few), you pick the high-enrollment courses in which you have willing faculty, and go from there.  

Horizontal development offers some real advantages.  It’s politically easier, because it’s voluntary.  But it also reaches more students sooner.  If you knock out, say, five of the top ten enrolled gen ed classes, chances are good that the vast majority of the students at the college will get an OER class, if not several.  Students talk to each other, and to faculty; over time, some who’ve had a few OER classes might ask their other professors why they aren’t using it.  It’s one thing to reject an idea from a vice president, but it’s much harder to reject it from your own students.  Assuming critical mass upfront, a viral transmission model can take effect.  That has the advantage of long-term sustainability.

In my perfect world, the folks who do grants for OER would recognize both models, and support both.  I’ve got thousands of students paying three figures per textbook (or not buying them at all) when they could be going with OER.  Yes, it’s sometimes possible to use some internal money, but community college budgets tend to be tight.  This is exactly the sort of thing for which grants are ideally suited.

So, a hint to the folks doing grants.  Vertical development is great, and I’m all for it, when it’s possible.  But don’t leave out horizontal development.  We could make a real difference for an amazing number of students quickly, just by that one change.

I think the OpenStax project is following the horizontal model. They seem to be delivering materials for large enrollment, entry courses. I have used their chemistry text and found it quite suitable.
Like Tom, I didn't recognize anything I know about the OER world in your article. But then I am not looking for an Art History textbook; I am only looking for a physics textbook for a particular course, just as he was looking for a chemistry textbook for a particular course. I had to wait longer, but knew it wouldn't be long once I saw a really good book at OpenStax for the algebra-based physics course.

We will see how it goes this fall.

There is no rule that says I have to wait for the History folks to adopt a book before I adopt one. We make decisions based on our pedagogical needs. Period. I'd recommend that you look at the books. They are, after all, open. Please take some time over the holiday weekend and visit openstax.org and take a look. Their math offerings are as vertical as it gets (pre-algebra to calculus III) for a CC, and they have a nice spectrum of science books. Their weakest area is in the social sciences. Want to write a Poli Sci book, Dean Reed?

But please tell me more about these grants you speak of. I'd love to write some of my existing pool of problems for their textbook, update some sections, or help update their ancillaries -- and will do so on my own time as needed -- but a grant would sure help.
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