Are open education models leading to more equitable access to education? The OER Research Hub (OERRH) has spent the past few months gathering evidence around this question in connection with OERRH hypothesis C – ‘Open education models lead to more equitable access to education, serving a broader base of learners than traditional education’. The emergent picture is mixed, based on evidence from our research with collaborating projects.
For example, in May I visited India to conduct research with the TESS-India project, which aims to use OER both in training new teachers, to meet a shortfall estimated at 1.33 million, and in improving the practice of existing teachers. TESS-India built on the success of its sister project TESSA (www.tessafrica.net), and is working in partnership with Indian States and the TESS-India partner education institutions to create the first and biggest network of freely available, high quality, teacher education resources in India, co-written by UK and Indian academic experts and available both in print and online. My research in India included interviews and focus groups with teacher-educators and trainee teachers at three District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) in Uttar Pradesh, India. I learned that several factors limit the potential for OER to be used to increase access to education in India. These barriers include:
A lack of ICT facilities in many DIETs;
A lack of ICT skills amongst teacher-educators;
A possible tension between the openness required to share OER and the deeply hierarchical nature of Indian society.
However, trainee teachers at two of the DIETs visited reported that they are already using Wikipedia to make lessons engaging for hard-to-reach children whose families would prefer them to work at home, rather than attending school. Planned research with TESS-India in the coming months will, in part, focus on the process of transculturisation that will be used to adapt OER for use in seven Indian states and is likely to reveal a more nuanced picture of the impact of OER in terms of increasing access to education.
Closer to home, a survey of users of the Open University’s OpenLearn OER platform offers evidence that OER can increase access to education for informal learners with disabilities (18% of survey respondents, compared with the UK-wide figure of 8% disabled students in higher education), and for learners for whom English is not their first language (24% of respondents, 47% of whom stated that they were using OpenLearn resources to improve their English language skills). However, the OpenLearn survey also provided evidence that the platform is largely being used by well-educated, well-qualified, employed informal and formal learners. For example, 26% of OpenLearn survey respondents indicated that they have undergraduate qualifications and a further 20% that they have postgraduate qualifications.
MOOCs have also attracted considerable attention in terms of claims that they widen access to education but again the picture is mixed. There is a growing body of external opinion criticising MOOCs for their low completion rates, as discussed by Sir John Daniel. One study of 20 courses showed that completion rates are as low as 6.8%. However, while this suggests that course learning goals of the host institution are not being achieved it’s arguable that learners may still be achieving their personal outcomes and that MOOCs may be providing educational opportunities to people who would not otherwise have access to higher education. That said, a study by Edinburgh University on the people using their six Coursera-based MOOCs showed that 70% of participants were qualified to undergraduate level or above. Moving away from MOOCs, similar findings emerged from the 2011 to 2013 OCW survey results, which showed that nearly half (45%) of OCW users are students currently undergoing secondary or university-level education, 22% are working professionals and 8% are teachers or faculty members.
Relevantly, the journal Distance Education recently published a special issue on OER and social inclusion in which Andy Lane argues that it is not yet possible to measure whether OER are truly widening either formal or informal engagement in higher education but also suggests that most OER are better suited to learners who are confident and experienced. In the same issue, Bossu, Bull and Brown note that, in the Australian context at least, those who most need access to higher education typically lack access to technology and, therefore, to OER. Overall, the issue provides little evidence that social inclusion is being promoted by OER. More positively, the potential of OER to increase access to learning beyond higher education is shown by a recent study of a UK academic performing the ‘public-facing open scholar’ role, sourcing OER to meet the needs of voluntary sector communities in the UK, Africa and Asia.
While, to date, the OER Research Hub has found minimal evidence of OER increasing access to education in the context of our collaborating projects, more positive external evidence does exist. For example, a survey of people using the OCW site of Fundação Getulio Vargas – a private Brazilian higher education institution – revealed that 78% of site users earn under $1,200 per month (the country’s overall average monthly salary is $678.90) and 60% had not studied online before (OCWC User Feedback Report, 2013). Additionally, a study reported in EURODL of 991 students at Virginia State University’s School of Business, which moved from using paid-for paper textbooks to free Flat World Knowledge online textbooks, showed that while just 53% of students did not purchase the paper textbooks, most due to finding them unaffordable, 93% of students reported reading the free online textbook. Ranging more broadly, an infographic from onlinecolleges.net suggests that 40% to 70% of students have declined to buy a textbook because of cost and that students can save 80% of the costs involved in purchasing traditional textbooks by using OER. These cost-savings have clear implications in allowing more equitable access to education.
In the coming months OER Research Hub researchers will be further exploring the hypothesis that ‘open education models lead to more equitable access to education, serving a broader base of learners than traditional education’. Planned research includes a pan-India survey of OER use in that country, surveys with Connexions users and School of Open students, and interviews with users of the UK Open University’s OpenLearn platform. We will also be analysing recently conducted interviews exploring the impact of the Bridge to Success project. In addition, we are eagerly anticipating visits from various OERRH Fellows in the coming months and are looking forward to working together to explore the relationship between access and openness in education.