Open Educational Resources (Part II) Money vs. Thank You: The Inevitable Clash With the Textbook Industry
Now that we have determined the essence of what an OER is, where does it fit in our current education model? From a North American perspective, it’s an alternative and supplement to the traditional textbook, something that even an industrialized country like the United States greatly need.
Expensive textbooks also add to this uncontrollable rise in the cost of higher education. It is somewhat of a hidden cost to professors, since they are the ones selecting the textbook, but they are not the one buying it, the students are! Prospective students are starting to become concerned that the cost of getting a degree might simply be to high, and that they can learn the skills they need on their own and with others, on the web. Now that textbooks are being made available in digital format, publishers cannot justify the price tag to high-quality printing and distribution anymore.
OER, without being a complete substitute to traditional textbooks, can at least alleviate some of the student-inferred costs and put some pressure on the publishers to drop their pricing to a fair level that the consumer market can live with. Some innovative institutions have started to invest strategically in open textbooks, an investment that should bear fruit in the near future. Some example of open textbook initiatives:
- The California Learning Resources Digital Textbook Initiative: In order to promote the use of electronic textbooks, the state of California has reviewed electronic textbooks to assess coverage of their content standards. Some of the books listed are commercial, but some of them are open and freely available.
- The University System of Ohio Free Textbook Program: Under this program, students will use electronic textbooks hosted by Flat World Knowledge, an innovative open textbook company that makes money by allowing students to print on-demand.
- The Washington State Student Completion Initiative: In order to address rising costs for their students, the Washington Community and Technical College system will be creating 81 open textbooks to serve high-enrollment classes.
Just like for the music industry, the digitization of materials will have an effect on pricing of electronic textbooks. It’s up to the publishers to come up with innovative approaches and fair pricing if they want to stay in the game.
According to Richard Beraniuk, Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Rice University, as stated during his ELI 2011 presentation, one problem that still needs to be addressed regarding OER and the publishers is sustainability. Keeping the publishers out of OER by using non-commercial licenses prevents the creation of an ecosystem of electronic resources. Open-source software has a lot of examples to offer regarding the success of commercial initiatives, like Redhat Linux.
The same could be applied to OER, as Flat World Knowledge proves it. By starting from OER materials, publishers could bring their authoring costs down significantly and package compelling textbooks at a decent price, something educators are longing for.
The Downside of OER
As a teacher, when it comes down to designing a course, time matters. A traditional publisher’s textbook is a pretty comfortable setting to design a course around. It’s structured in the right sequence, peer-reviewed, has case studies and exercises, and usually a teacher’s handbook and a companion website full of goodies like self-assessment quizzes, multimedia material, and pre-built PowerPoint slides. It’s like a good old pair of slippers.
OERs, on the other hand, are usually scattered, hard to find, inconsistent in style, of unknown origin, needing tweaking or assembly. You might find a Flash learning object here, a Youtube video there, a chapter of an open textbook that needs a good local case study to make it complete, a diagram that suit your needs, etc. They are free as in “freedom of use”, not as free as in “free beer”. Deciding to get started with OER might be a daunting task. You might even have to consider to develop certain learning modules yourself, from scratch.
But the fact that your course might be incomplete is also an opportunity to engage your students in building the missing pieces and making them available as OERs. And those pieces are interchangeable, so your course will always stay fresh, from one iteration to the next.
During a panel discussion held on January 18, 2011, talking about why the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges decided to support open textbooks, Cable Green, Director of eLearning & Open Education, said (I’m paraphrasing here a little, I had written notes of this): “We are selfish, we only focus on what makes sense to us. But we’ll open it for two reasons: 1) to make the use easier for us, and 2) because good things will happen to us.”
So besides the obvious benefit of getting access for these resources for free, let’s not forget to take into consideration that the act of making OERs available to others is a context to engage in conversations about education, and how to make it deeper, different, faster, cheaper, more accessible, etc. The best free resources get used profusely, and people who create them get recognized, which is totally in tune with the way higher education works anyway.
OER Repositories and Additional Resources
Now it’s your turn to explore and see if OERs are right for you. In addition to some links that were already covered in the post, the following ones point to OER repositories that you could start using today, for free!
- Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources
- Khan University
- MIT Open Courseware
- Peer2Peer University (P2PU)
- 7 Things You Should Know About Open Textbook Publishing
This article is an invited post from Mathieu Plourde