I’m in Orlando, Florida (the weather is glorious, unlike the UK) for the eLearning 2014 conference which starts tomorrow.  Today I’ve taken part in a pre-conference workshop on OER in Valencia College with Jean Runyon of Anne Arundel Community College and James Glapa-Grossklag of College of the Canyons.  Here are my notes from the session which may be of wider interest…

If you look carefully you might see an alligatOER

The cost of textbooks is a major concern in community colleges in the USA.  The recent report from Student PIRGS entitled ‘Fixing the Broken Textbook Market’ found that:

  • 65% of students said that they had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive
  • 94% of students who had foregone purchasing a textbook were concerned that doing so would hurt their grade in a course
  • 82% of students felt they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available free online and buying a hard copy was optional

OER in the form of open textbooks is conceived of as a response to this problem.  OpenStax College textbooks are widely recognised as offering good quality resources.  They make their open textbooks available for free digitally e.g. online, PDF, and ePub format they offer printed version in the $30-60 range.  OER are often funded by private foundations, philanthropic organisations and educational institutions (some $100 million so far).  Over the last fifteen years have grown up from being the interest of a small grass roots movement up to an international efforts to innovate practices and improve access to quality education.  TAACCCCT grants in the order of $2 billion are being provided to produce educational materials on a CC-BY licence, such as the National STEM bridging materials that are hosted on the Carnegie Mellon University OLI.

There can be some challenges around selecting OER for college students.  A lot of the OER that has been produced is often not at the right level for community college students (e.g. MIT materials) or not a good cultural fit.

  • Quality of content/pedagogy
  • Alignment with curricula or course objectives
  • Reading/writing level
  • Cultural relevancy
  • Author credentials
  • Clarity of material
  • Ancillaries (embedded or associated materials, tests, etc.)

There are many ways to approach the task of finding OER depending on the course and the level.  It’s also important to think about the resources that are already out there and whether these form the core of the resource that is needed or whether there is a need to produce materials from scratch.  One of the barriers to adopting openness is the discoverability of the materials produced – it can be hard to know where resources may be found, whether they are of adequate quality, and whether these resources are maintained.  But there are resources out there to help with this.  Achieve, for example, have set out the following rubrics for identifying and evaluating quality OER.

Rubric I. Degree of Alignment to Standards
Rubric II. Quality of Explanation of the Subject Matter
Rubric III. Utility of Materials Designed to Support Teaching
Rubric IV. Quality of Assessment
Rubric V. Quality of Technological Interactivity
Rubric VI. Quality of Instructional Tasks and Practice Exercises
Rubric VII. Opportunities for Deeper Learning
Rubric VIII. Assurance of Accessibility

With this in mind, session participants (new to OER) were asked to search some of the major OER repositories (Connexions; OpenStax College; Open Textbook Library; MERLOT; Open Course Library; The Orange Grove; College Open Textbooks; OER Commons; Saylor.org) for resources in their own subject areas for about 10 minutes and then report back on the experience.

  • Looking for Intro to Psychology materials produced two really strong resources, including one where University of Minnesota faculty have reviewed the resources.  They includes their rubric as part of the review so others can follow their process and this can also help advocates convince other faculty members of the quality of OER.
  • Searching for resources on marketing and economics didn’t produce quite the resources needed but there was a lot of supplementary information available that could be used to complement existing offerings.
  • Resources on technical communication are relatively scarce as this is quite a specific area of study.  Looking for resources in this area inspired creative approaches.  James noted that unless it’s a 101 course it’s possible that the exact resource doesn’t exist, but where content is digital, modular and openly licensed it’s relatively easy to pull together the resource that is needed.
    • Ancillary materials often don’t comply to accessibility needs and need to be amended anyway – pulling students into this process can be a help to everyone.  (Publishers often bundle ancillary content with textbooks under non transferable licenses.)
    • Publishers often also unhelpfully edit the content of textbooks which are being used and being open could prevent this and give more control to the educators.
  • Participants using OpenStax found that there are communities already established around key textbooks that have been used for a number of years (e.g. Barbara Illowsky’s statistics textbook).  This community can be a useful resource in its own right.
  • A cultural communications textbook was found within one minute on Saylor.org.  The text was felt to be of quality commensurate with a college level course but the links to online activities seemed to be broken.

After the break the focus shifted to licensing options.  With open licences (e.g. Creative Commons) the author can retain full intellectual rights over the materials while specifying those forms of use which are valid.  Here is some information about the licensing options provided by Creative Commons (taken from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/)


This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

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This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

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This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

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This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

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This license is the most restrictive of the six main Creative Commons licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

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Open licensing has made it possible for curricula to be legally adopted by whole countries, or for resources to be improved (e.g. by adding captions to existing video).  It also means that different variants of the same resource can be created for different educational contexts.  OER can thus improve accessibility options as well as allowing for content that is more closely aligned to specific learning objectives.

In practical terms, what can help OER adoption?  Some of the answers given:

  • There is a need for compelling success stories which make the value of OER clear
  • Faculty advocates need to share their experiences so that others can learn from them (e.g. CCCOER webinars)
  • Publicise OER week to campus stakeholders to generate awareness
  • Work with campus bookstores to encourage footfall (e.g. collect OER from the store)
  • Help librarians to produce guides to openly available materials
  • Try to get buy-in from deans, vice presidents and other policymakers
  • Find other advocates in your subject area and region (especially if you don’t have much faculty support)
  • Find out about student preferences for textbook formats, involve students in the discussion
  • Build a portfolio of narratives about students who have benefitted from OER initiatives – these can be powerful!
  • Be bold:  experiment publicly to show that something can work if you want faculty to be persuaded
  • Openly licence your own works and scholarly output
  • Be a good example and build goodwill
  • Instructional designers can promote Universal Design for Learning
  • Join the major advocacy organisations (e.g. OCWC, CCCOER) for help and access to a community of experts
  • Work with OER Research Hub to build an evidence base for OER impact!