The relationship between open educational resources and formal education is complex and multifaceted. In the early days of OER, detractors of the OER movement cautioned that universities could suffer financially from releasing free content – a vision of OER as in competition with formal education. To date, OER Research Hub (OERRH) research around the hypothesis ‘open education acts as a bridge to formal education, and is complementary, not competitive, with it’ has found some evidence in support of this assertion.

For example, data gathered via a survey of the Open University’s OpenLearn platform indicated that 48% of OpenLearn-using formal students completing the survey and 35% OpenLearn users not registered on a formal course of study were more likely to take a paid-for course as a result of using OpenLearn. Furthermore, 42% of survey respondents indicated that they had used the OpenLearn resources in order to try out university-level content before signing up for a paid-for course, 25% of formal learners using OpenLearn had studied their subject via OpenLearn before joining a paid-for course and 28% indicated that their use of OpenLearn had influenced their decision to register for their current paid-for course.  One respondent commented: ‘I am already an OU student and I use OpenLearn to help me decide which module(s) to study next’.

This evidence suggests that OpenLearn is being used as a taster for paid-for study with the Open University, thereby acting as a bridge to formal learning. It could be argued that this aspect of OpenLearn’s value to its users is particularly important at a time when higher education fees have increased considerably in the UK, across all providers, and potential students may be particularly risk-averse.  External to the OERRH collaborative research, a survey of people using the OCW site for Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) – a private Brazilian higher education institution – near-mirrored the OpenLearn survey results in showing that 41% of FGV OER users would like to do a regular online course (OCWC User Feedback Report, 2013).  Returning to OpenLearn however, it is worth noting that 12% of OpenLearn survey respondents said they were less likely to take a paid-for course and 86% that they were more likely to take a free course. This could indicate that using OER has greater impact in influencing the use of additional free and open learning materials than in influencing registration on paid-for formal courses.

Our research has also highlighted the need to explore the drivers for studying with OER before making assumptions about the link between OER and formal education. For example, interviews with community college instructors in Baltimore, conducted during a research trip by OERRH researchers Beck Pitt and Rob Farrow, revealed that some community college instructors suspected that not all students using the Bridge to Success OER in community colleges are doing so by choice and that some are doing so because achieving a high school diploma is a condition of their release from prison.  Furthermore, the interviews also suggested that for some students (those receiving financial benefits and/or those who have dropped out of school) use of OER is a route to employment, rather than a bridge to continued formal education.

On a more positive note, the Bridge to Success interviews with instructors in Baltimore did offer some evidence that using OER can be a bridge to formal education. One instructor commented that ‘we don’t have a lot of resources for students, from the time that they enrol to prepare them for their first classes, and so this is kind of nice to have something in between, to help them go into the classes’. However, it’s worth considering the extent to which these materials’ status as OER is significant here and whether non-OER online learning materials would be just as effective.

When considering the relationship between OER and formal education it is worth considering the impact of OER on formal learners’ study experience as this may show other ways in which OER are complementary with formal education.  Relevantly, 22% of OpenLearn survey respondents stated that they had used OpenLearn resources or other OER in connection with their formal studies. In addition, evidence gathered to date around OERRH Hypothesis A – ‘use of OER leads to improvement in student performance and satisfaction’ – shows various different ways in which formal students’ use of OpenLearn resources has enhanced their study experience, for example in developing study skills, independence and self-reliance, and in building students’ confidence and enthusiasm for their studies.

In the next phase of the OERRH research we will be further exploring the ‘bridge to formal learning’ hypothesis by conducting surveys of OER-using community colleges in connection with the CCCOER collaboration. We will also be comparing the OpenLearn survey results with findings from parallel surveys conducted with users of the Open University’s iTunes U and YouTube provision.

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