An Open Book: OER at a Global Perspective

Many writers and publishers are concerned with protecting their copyright—ensuring that their work will not be taken and used by others without their consent. However, there is one group of creators who are more concerned with ensuring that their content is open. These individuals are educators—university professors, high school instructors, elementary teachers, and students—who would like to create educational resources that can freely be used within their community and around the world. For these individuals, open copyright licenses (e.g., Creative Commons licenses) allow their work to benefit students (and the public) through the use of Open Educational Resources (OER).

OER are educational resources that are (1) freely available and (2) either in the public domain or have an open license that allows the public to use them and revise them with the proper attribution. Many educational resources fall within OER including: full courses, textbooks, software, course materials, tests, and streaming video, to name a few.

Many projects have been started across the world, including the Campus Alberta OER Iniative. While the project funds OER in post secondary institutions across the province, the projects benefit more than their local education system. And the initiative is honoured to be contributing to the global movement of OERs that are supporting increased accessibility to education. The global OER movement has shifted education so that resources are more widely available to the public, free of charge. The idea is that education should be accessible and collaborative. And the educational materials should combine the best information in the field, and be tailored to the needs of students within specific schools — OER allows for the transfer of knowledge that meets these goals.

Beginning of the Movement

According to Rory McGreal, an Athabasca University professor and co-chair of the Alberta OER Initiative, the idea for the movement was germinating in the ‘80s when people started creating open software. As soon as educational content is created, it is automatically copyright-restricted. But many educators started to support openness. The Internet also changed the way people started viewing content with people sharing knowledge and information far more than before.

McGreal references U.S. lawyer, Lawrence Lessig article “Getting Our Values around Copyright Right, which speaks about the need of copyright for individuals such as Britney Spears. “ But teachers don’t [need the protection]. A lot of their work is financed by the public, so the public should own it and it should be made freely available,” says McGreal.

By the late 1990s, open resources were being created. Richard Baraniuk in 1999 was an electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University in Texas and was frustrated because he could not find a textbook that was “just right” for his class. He thought about writing a textbook himself, but realized the problem was within the entire system.

“Even back then, there were looming problems around access, and the very slow, glacial pace that content was developed and updated. And the high cost. So, I had an idea that why can’t we make textbooks that are open source, free and open—little chunks of knowledge that are easy to adapt and improve,” says Baraniuk.

In the Public Domain

From that idea he formed Connexions, a platform for sharing and developing free learning materials. It was very popular, and Baraniuk realized there was a real need for more of these resources. The Connexions team worried about the rising student debts incurred by students across North America and wanted to make education more accessible. So, he decided it was important to ensure the creation of some of these resources, leading to the launch of OpenStax College. OpenStax College has developed free, open textbooks through a team of subject matter experts, and writers for the 25 highest enrolled college courses in North America including Calculus, Chemistry, History and Accounting.

In 2001, Creative Commons was created, and the following year, they released their first open licenses. In the past, the only way for someone to have their work—be it a textbook, a novel or a magazine article—to enter the public domain was to wait until the end of the author’s life, plus 50 years (now + 70 years with new TPP trade agreement) in Canada, and that varies depending on the country. But through Creative Commons, creators can keep their copyright and select an open license that works best for them, allowing others to use and share their content as long as attribution is given to the original author.

Meanwhile, a year later, UNESCO Paris held a Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries and the term Open Educational Resources was officially adopted. As a result many post-secondary institutions along with primary and secondary schools now use Creative Commons open licenses that allow them to share their resources and textbooks with the public.

One of the largest initiatives was the MIT Opencourseware project, which started in 2002. The idea of the project was to publish the material for all of MIT’s courses online where anyone could access and collaborate with it. To date, there are 2,260 open courses in the initiative and over 170 million visitors to the website.

OER Partnerships

Since then, many projects have been launched. In 2014, Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan came together and signed a Memorandum of Understanding supporting OER. McGreal co-chairs the Campus Alberta Open Educational Resources Initiative committee with Jason Dewling , VP Academic & Research of Olds College. The province is putting $2 million towards supporting awareness and use of OER. McGreal is also on the board of directors of the OER Universitas (OERu), which is a global collaboration of over 35 institutions around the world “who are supporting OER and the use of OER to create pathways to assessment and accreditation.”

Cable Green, the Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons, has witnessed the growth of countless OER initiatives around the world. One initiative, for example, consists of a partnership between the University of Michigan and the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa called the “Africa Health OER Network.” OER are created and shared between them and medical students have access to all of it under a Creative Commons open license. “So, you can imagine doctors in Africa are experts in tropical diseases. And now, because of international travel, cases are showing up in North American hospitals, and doctors are underprepared,” says Green, explaining that the OER allows for a transfer of information that may not normally be as accessible, such as the treatment of tropical diseases.

OER can make a huge difference financially for many students. Green cites one example of an OER initiative that changed success rates of students in Washington State. Green was working for the Washington State Community College prior to coming to Creative Commons. “We have 34 colleges in the state and about 500,000 students and they spend approximately $140 million dollars / year on textbooks for the highest enrolled courses,” says Green.

As a result of their high cost, two-thirds of students were not buying text books, which led to lower student success, longer time to degree and more students dropping out of courses. So, the Open Course Library was started—the idea was to pick the highest enrolled classes and create textbooks and course materials for those courses. And those courses—there are over 80 of them—are not just popular in Washington, they’re popular around the world, and can be used by anyone, anywhere. It’s resulted in higher grades and less students dropping out.

Living Curriculum

Washington State also passed a legislative bill asking the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to support the state’s nearly 300 K-12 school districts in learning about and using existing OER. Barbara Soots, OER Program Manager for OSPI says OER give elementary and high school teachers the chance to customize content specifically for their students. This is especially important when commercial resource materials may be largely out-of-date and irrelevant for many students.

“I’m just really excited about this idea of having a living curriculum that teachers can look at on an annual basis and make tweaks based on the data they’re getting back from their students,” says Soots, who explains that with commercial textbooks updates happen around every 10 years.

And grade school curriculums around the world are being influenced by OER. An initiative in Poland has developed a number of OER textbooks for elementary and high school students. Due to limited access to textbooks in primary and secondary education, many parents need to purchase commercial textbooks. But limited resources prevent many parents from being able to afford the books, resulting in many children without textbooks. The OER initiative has helped ensure far more students are able to have all the resources needed for their education.

Meanwhile, Luxi Island in China hosts an OER summer camp for grade school children about OER and Creative Commons, and even gives them the chance to build educational content. Green says that collaboration with students is one of the valuable aspects of OER. It’s happening in post-secondary education, too. Some professors are engaging students by requesting that they update content as a part of their assignments.

OER Impacts

In the past, Green explains, an assignment would be disposable in the sense that once it was done, both the student and the professor would forget about it. The student would receive a mark and move on. But now, if the student is updating a chapter in her OER textbook to reflect a recent innovation in the field, her work is elevated— now it would be used by other classmates, and potentially students around the world.

“Now she’s creating something that will actually impact the world. And so she is motivated and will work harder because the assignment matters,” says Green. Students are being engaged, and Green believes it will have a huge impact on the amount they learn and the growth of their passion for their field of education.

OER are creating a more affordable way of sharing information that is far more up-to-date and relevant than it has been in the past. This new model for creating educational resources is leading to collaboration among educators, and students, while opening access to education to anyone regardless of their economic situation.