Open Educational Resources: The Story of Change and Evolving Perceptions

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Although the term may still not be familiar to the wider public—including college students and faculty—Open Educational Resources (OERs) have been an integral part of education worldwide for at least two decades. OERs generally refer to digital educational materials that anyone anywhere can use freely and legally, including the user’s right to copy, share, enhance and/or modify them for the purposes of sharing knowledge and enabling education. These run the gamut and stretch beyond digital textbooks—usually perceived as the most common educational resources—to include everything from course materials, university courses, e-learning platforms, software, and streaming videos to lectures and digital repositories of monographs and journals.

Regardless of how different and varied OERs may seem at first—ranging from single books to multi-functional and comprehensive platforms—what makes a resource an OER is that it is freely available to anyone, notwithstanding a person’s location and affiliation. OER users may well be college and university students, but they may also be independent learners, researchers or lay readers. Of course, ‘open’ does not mean ‘without any restriction’ or ‘without any financial support.’ It simply means ‘free access.’

Likewise, ‘open’ does not mean ‘without financial backing.’ The mechanisms through which resources become ‘open’ and ‘free’ are complex, always evolving, and require ongoing financial support. A variety of financial models exist on the market that contributes to the sustainability of OERs (Downes, 2007), ranging from, among others, endowment models (funding is usually received from charitable foundations) and membership models (participating organizations contribute a certain amount as members) to sponsorship models (a range of commercial messages, more subtle or less subtle, may interrupt learning and reading), and institution models (various institutions assume the full responsibility for their OER initiatives and bear the financial burden).

WELL-KNOWN OERs
MIT OpenCourseWare, an online platform housing free
eductional and teaching materials from MIT courses
Open Textbook Library, a catalog of free, peer-reviewed, and
open textbooks
Open Course Library, a collection of materials, including syllabi,
course activities, readings, and assessments
Khan Academy, an online source of short lessons in the form of
videos and practice exercises and materials for educators
National Science Digital Library, a library of collections and
services supporting STEM education
OER Commons, a collection of over 50,000 university courses,
open textbooks, interactive mini-lessons, and K-12 lesson plans
Wikipedia, the world’s most used free encyclopedia
Wikimedia Commons, a repository of free digital images
and various media files  

The complexity of OERs

In the context of libraries, OERs as we know them have been around for longer than two decades. Librarians have, in many ways, contributed to the infrastructure of open education long before various types of OERs became the norm. The Internet Archive, for example, has been up and running for nearly a quarter of a century, while Project Gutenberg, the first online repository of public domain content—also a form of OER built and maintained by volunteers, including librarians—has its beginnings in the early 1970s. These initial undertakings paved the way for the advent of new, more specialized types of OERs used today. And as education began moving in the direction of open digital textbooks—scattered in disparate sources online that students and faculty had little awareness of—librarian roles in colleges and universities began to shift, requiring more active participation in the discovery of OERs.

What exactly has contributed to the explosion of OERs in recent years? The steep cost of textbooks and higher education in general, particularly in the United States, is frequently attributed to their popularity perhaps more than any other factor. According to the College Board, undergraduates now spend an average of $1200 on textbooks annually, and this remains a concern.

As a result, many surveys and studies have been released over the last few years shedding light on the benefits of OERs for students and faculty looking to make education more affordable and effective. Although several studies also point to some challenges, the advantages of OERs seem to far outweigh their potential drawbacks. The pros cited the most in available literature include:

  • OERs are widely and universally available
  • technology has made the cost of sharing OERs practically non-existent
  • given their digital nature, OERs can be modified to fit various needs
  • OERs help accelerate the advancement of human knowledge
  • due to ongoing technological improvements, OERs can reach learners faster than print textbooks
  • OERs allow students and parents to save significantly
  • OERs promote self-directed learning
  • OERs reach large numbers of learners at the same time, regardless of their location
  • OERs have revolutionized the way remote students or long-distance learners approach education
  • OERs allow for a more extensive peer review process

On the flip side, the drawbacks of OERs—although not as much of a concern in 2019 as they once were—are still raised by faculty today and deserve some scrutiny. The first has to do with the overall quality of OER content. Because various types of OERs can be edited by anyone at any time—often in ‘real’ time—information they carry (and that they allow for further sharing) may not always be reliable or entirely accurate. Of course, teaching materials are expected to be authoritative and faculty have reason to continue placing their trust in the materials from the sources they have relied on for years.

The second has to do with intellectual property. For decades, faculty have relied on the protection of the ‘fair use’ provision to share excerpts from copyrighted materials for teaching purposes. However, in the case of OERs, the notion of ‘fair use’ no longer applies. Many professors do not understand what exactly can or cannot be done with OERs, since the licenses they carry—usually one of several Creative Commons (CC) licenses—may still be confusing to a lot of people. In addition, OER licenses change from “All rights reserved” to “Some rights reserved” quite frequently, and open resources may encounter obstacles that have to do with copyright and permissions, requiring faculty to adjust their expectations.

The third concern has to do with the limitations of technology. More specifically, regarding access and ease of use. Some questions that arise in this context include: Are there tools in place enabling seamless access for users? Is technology enabling a good user experience not only for students but also for researchers? What type of technology is used and what is the quality of the files shared? As much as technology has been able to support the flourishing of OERs, it has also, in some cases, made it challenging, particularly for students with limited access to the Internet (or a slow connection), or students not able to download various software required to access educational materials or platforms remotely. Although this affects a very small percentage of students, digital divides still exist.

As we enter the third decade of the century, perhaps no other issue involving OERs is more relevant and affecting more users, including faculty, than discoverability. All other potential issues aside, the sheer ability to keep up and filter through thousands of OERs, in various forms and formats, is a skill in and of itself. OERs are scattered all over the Internet and continue to grow at a staggering pace. Hundreds of universities worldwide, for example, now offer OpenCourseWare (OCW) and academic librarians are actively building their institutions’ open access repositories. And more professors participate in creating and publishing open textbooks on their own.

‘No other issue involving OERs is more relevant and affecting more users, including faculty, than discoverability.’

So, while we can assume that digital divides have shrunk significantly, and that quality has improved all-around—including both content and delivery—we still need to reduce the complexity of finding and assessing OERs. The fact is: both faculty and students are overwhelmed with the choices available to them.

Evolving perceptions

Countless studies have examined not only the influence of OERs on learning outcomes but also student and faculty perceptions. Much insight has been gained about student and teacher views of OERs. While some still perceive open textbooks, for example, as being lower quality than traditional textbooks, the majority perceive OERs as being of higher quality. Some studies have shown that over three times as many teachers and six times as many students think the OERs are better than traditional books (Bliss, 2013).

Over the last few years alone, tens of thousands of students have participated in studies examining the impact of OERs. Their findings consistently point to a fast and steady rise in the popularity of OERs among students, and no study to date has shown negative outcomes. In one study, 78 percent of students said they would recommend OERs to their classmates and 83 percent said that OERs adequately supported the work they did outside of class (Hilton, 2016). If asked to point to the main drawbacks of traditional textbooks, students tend to complain about their weight and constantly worrying if they would get damaged (particularly when their intentions are to eventually sell them back to bookstores). They also report learning faster and more effectively in digital environments, even when they have learning disabilities (Bliss, 2013).

On the other hand, faculty perceptions of OERs are more complex. While studies show faculty to be embracing OERs more than in the past, they also point to some reservations. Professors and teachers generally agree that OERs can, indeed, make students equally prepared for class. A large-scale OER study—conducted in the context of an open education initiative called Project Kaleidoscope and involving eight U.S. community colleges serving mostly at-risk students—found that 63 percent of teachers believed their students were equally prepared by using traditional learning methods and those involving OERs (Bliss, 2013).

With the usual price tag of $100 to $200 per volume, textbooks are out of reach for many students across the United States, and this reality is directly correlated with the steep cost of education in general (i.e., tuition fees). According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, college textbook prices have increased at nearly four times the rate of inflation for all finished goods since 1994.

In Library Journal’s (LJ) 2019 textbook affordability survey, two-thirds of the libraries that participated confirmed that textbook affordability was a major concern for their institutions and a whopping 95 percent also confirmed it was a major concern for their students, particularly for those attending community colleges. The LJ survey revealed that libraries worked actively with faculty to offer viable options, citing OERs as the most logical solution offered to faculty on campus when trying to reduce the cost of education for students. Some 64 percent of librarians reported helping faculty select appropriate OERs for their courses.

Clearly, professors sympathize with students on the issue of money and agree that OERs reduce the cost of materials and may even require less preparation for them than textbooks. However, more and more faculty point to OERs requiring more preparation time for them. It simply takes more time for them to gather the materials scattered on the Internet and sort through them than assigning a single, reliable textbook as a required course reading.

‘Some 64 percent of librarians reported helping faculty select appropriate OERs for their courses.’

Two central issues that affect student and teacher perceptions of OERs rise to the top. For students, it is always about cost and affordability, while for faculty, it is about quality and guidance. Librarians are therefore uniquely positioned, in their ever-present role of the middleman, to help both, particularly professors needing help with discoverability. While faculty are very skilled at evaluating content, they are not as skilled at finding it and using it online.

The role of librarians

As with other aspects of supporting research, librarians play a vital role in the discovery, availability, and usefulness of OERs at their institutions, particularly in the realm of open digital textbooks and open access books. Now that there is ample evidence that OERs are widely perceived as high-quality and free substitutes for textbooks, students and faculty need guidance to be able to create, use, and share them. But first, they must know that they exist.

Faculty all over the world are still catching on to the concept of Open Access, for example, which many others take for granted. In a 2012 survey of 2,707 faculty members of Florida colleges, only seven percent were ‘very familiar’ with OA textbooks, while over half (52 percent) were ‘not at all familiar” with OA textbooks (Morris-Babb and Henderson, 2012). Another survey of over 2000 US faculty members found that only 34 percent were aware of OERs (Allen and Seaman, 2014). Clearly, although the market has greatly matured in 2019, it is still in its infancy.

‘While faculty are very skilled at evaluating educational content, they are not as skilled at finding and using it online.’

Further, faculty are not always aware of what their own libraries carry in their collections, let alone what is floating openly in cyberspace, so librarians need to have a clear insight into what faculty on campus want and need. This is particularly the case in institutions that do not have dedicated librarians on board who specialize in open education as is the case with the University of Arizona (UA). “We can help faculty find a range of content options that are free for students to use, including OERs, library-licensed e-books and articles, and streaming video,” says Cheryl Cuillier, Open Education Librarian at UA. “This semester an instructor and I started an OER Professional Learning Community at UA that educates faculty and instructional designers about Creative Commons licenses, copyright and fair use, open pedagogy, where to find OERs, and more. As a librarian, I get a lot of questions about these topics.”

While librarians can help faculty find quality resources and get clarity over copyright and other complex issues that remain out of faculty’s areas of expertise, Nathaniel King, Library Director at Nevada State College, thinks librarians need to go even further in their efforts. “We need to place instructors at the center of open education. Finding suitable open materials is only part of the equation.” King adds, “Many instructors have a strong attachment to their existing course materials. For them, the course conversion process can be a risky and time-consuming endeavor. As the environment for OERs matures, the most successful institutions in this area will be willing to invest the financial resources to appropriately compensate instructors to create, adopt, and adapt these materials.”

Two main roles of librarians become apparent: first, they must drive discoverability and usage of OERs, which will greatly benefit students and the entire OER ecosystem, while also helping faculty to create/publish their own OERs. This way they will encourage their faculty’s professional development as well as fair compensation, which will give future OERs more credibility. It will also preserve them for future generations.

Pointing the way

The sheer volume of OERs available online has resulted in the creation of sources that aim to direct librarians and faculty to viable open content online for research and education. Logically, the more librarians are aware of what’s out there and where to find it, the more they can achieve their goals of helping faculty keep apace. Two types of sources serve as sort of ‘directories’ for OERs. The first are the repositories that house actual ‘open’ content, including a wide variety of publications, the second are portals designed to point in the right direction.

Repositories control actual materials, as they are stored on the institution’s own servers, and as such, they also require significant resources, manpower, and funding to keep them competitive and relevant. This includes various academic repositories that libraries around the world have built to support, preserve and make widely available their faculty’s research.

Portals, in contrast, have a different role. By not needing to focus on building and maintaining fluid collections of actual materials, which grow at a dizzying pace, portals are solely focused on pointing to other repositories and resources. Their advantage is that they can point to large amounts of materials across the Web—far more than any single repository can hold, giving faculty and librarians a much broader overview of what is out there.

‘Platforms like Faculty Select are the ‘go-to’ place for universities to obtain quality, free content which supports student access while also controlling the ever-rising cost of education.’

There are also platforms like EBSCO Faculty Select, which enables faculty to both find and access OER content. But unlike similar products on the market that help educators find high-quality resources for their students (e.g., Intellus Learning), Faculty Select goes beyond OERs to incorporate DRM-free e-books, giving faculty unlimited access to a wide range of no-cost educational materials in one place. Because of their DRM-free status, e-books incorporated into Faculty Select give more flexibility to users than do traditional e-books (e.g., students may print, copy, or download chapters).

Faculty Select is made up of two types of records: 1) Open textbook metadata and links from OER providers, including Open Textbook Network, OAPEN Library, Open BC Textbooks, and SUNY Open Textbooks; and 2) E-books that are available for purchase, including approximately 200,000 DRM-free e-books from EBSCO eBooks and major textbook publishers like Taylor & Francis, Cambridge University Press, and Wiley. By serving as a discovery tool that points to both classic OERs as well as unrestricted e-books, Faculty Select echoes the desires of faculty to not abandon classic textbooks but to instead create a bridge connecting tradition and digital innovation. It also makes it easier for librarians to support faculty in finding viable digital replacements for their students. And, whether faculty choose classic OERs or DRM-free e-books, these materials are freely available to students through the library.

When they find the title of interest in Faculty Select, professors can decide if they want to adopt it. If it is an OER, a link is provided to them to be used in the course. If it’s an e-book not yet owned by the library, they can submit a purchase request through their library directly. Librarian Anne Osterman, director of Virtual Library of Virginia, which utilizes Faculty Select, says: “With this system, we’re able to help faculty discover library content that is appropriate for their courses and available at no cost to students.” This again brings us back to the central issue with OERs that academic librarians know well: discoverability. Platforms like Faculty Select and Intellus Learning are the ‘go-to’ place for universities to obtain quality, free content which supports student access while also controlling the ever-rising cost of education.

The next chapter

No story of ‘digital content’ concerning education and academia has been purely about revolution but instead about evolution. No story has been about complete transformation as much as about slow and methodical transition. And every story thus far has involved both radical change as well as sensible changeover. OERs are no exception. In order to help students be able to afford education, the story of OERs’ development has seen roles shifting for all parties, particularly faculty. The next chapter in the story is yet to be written, but if the progress thus far is any indication, it will continue to be one that involves more communication between faculty and librarians.

The lesson so far is clear: OERs have been able to equalize not only access to education for students who could not afford it, but they have also allowed for new opportunities for faculty and researchers, giving them more options to fulfill their goals as instructors as well as scientists. Further, they have also created more equality among libraries. “We only have to compare the resources of the libraries and laboratories of the top 20 universities in the United States with the thousands of colleges and universities that are not among them to see such inequalities here at home” (Smith & Casserly, 2006). In 2019, the gap is shrinking between small and large institutions and between under-funded and well-funded institutions. In other words, among the many, often overlooked, achievements of the OER movement is also its power to make smaller academic libraries more viable competitors in a fast-moving and very global education market.

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