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?