Opening Canadian Classrooms

Open Educational Resources have been used in Canadian classrooms for years, but now they have formal backing

Jason Dewling, co-chair of the Campus Alberta Open Educational Resources initiative, recalls hauling boxes upon boxes of textbooks with him through several moves over three provinces as a post secondary student. Eventually, he says, the boxes were all moved to the dump.

Now, he says, those textbooks would be out-dated and not applicable to the subjects they were meant to accompany. But luckily, the introduction of open educational resources (OER) means students have access to information that is current, and reduces the huge costs normally associated with commercial textbooks. And they can access all of it on their mobile devices.

OER have been used in Canada for decades, but not necessarily under that name. When it comes to education, it makes sense to share information and work together to create the best curriculums possible through resources that are freely accessible to anyone.

“There has always been a culture of working openly to some degree, I think,” says Mary Burgess, executive director of BCcampus, an organization that supports the creation and use of open educational resources. “Faculty across the country would share their resources with each other, or write some curriculum and give it to their students.”Formalized Pursuit

Now, Burgess believes the pursuit of open resources is becoming more formalized. Her statements are backed up by the government’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the western provinces.

In 2013, Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan signed an MOU supporting their working together on open resources. “The MOU is really intended to articulate the spirit of collaboration and a desire to build on each other’s work rather than reinventing the wheel across the provinces,” says Burgess.

Burgess has seen the progress of OER within her province, and specifically at BCcampus, an organization funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education. Even before the MOU between the provinces BCcampus was working extensively on OER. In the early 2000s, BCcampus started running the on-line program development fund to create openly licensed curricular resources.

Due to their experience with OER, BCcampus was asked by the provincial government to manage the Open Textbook Project. The first round of funding allocated a million dollars towards the development of OER for 40 of most highly enrolled subjects in B.C.

Burgess says the project has had a huge impact on students—allowing them to save hundreds of dollars on books, while improving the content of their resources. Meanwhile, the B.C. government also dedicated funding towards skills training, so OER were created for areas such as trades, tourism, health care and hospitality.

Alberta has also been interested in contributing to the breadth of OER available within Canada. And having a MOU is one way of ensuring that the OER produced by the separate provinces will complement each other. The Campus Alberta OER initiative has funded 15 unique OER projects across the province, each helping to reduce education costs while increasing accessibility. And the knowledge gained through the process is allowing many instructors to continue developing open resources that will benefit students across the country, and beyond.

“We’re on the cusp of more change—probably the most this sector has seen since the printing press,” says Dewling. “For the most part, in the past, post secondary institutes have been the repository of information.,” he says. He goes on to explain that in the past, experts at universities were the only way to learn, but now information is much more accessible.

While the Internet paved the way for changing the way we access information, open resources further increased the accessibility. And OER generally undergo a peer review process, making the quality as reliable as that of their predecessors.

 In Saskatchewan, there have been some exciting developments in open resources as well. In 2011, the University of Saskatchewan launched an open courseware project. “Instructors had the option of opening up resources for any of their courses if they wish,” says Heather Ross, instructional design specialist at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Saskatchewan. The University is especially dedicated to using open textbooks, having used six this year, and saving students about $90,000.

This year, the government of Saskatchewan allocated a quarter of a million dollars to be split among the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Polytechnic and the University of Regina to support the development of open source materials. “It’s really a great signal of partnership between the province and post secondary institutions,” says Patti McDougall, vice-provost teaching and learning at the University of Saskatchewan.

“One of the great things about open is the collaborations that can happen especially since there isn’t competition over royalties. And being able to work together between the various university agencies, whether BCcampus or the Gwenna Moss Centre—but having that connection as opposed to individual instructors dealing with publishers, I think we can get a better handle on what’s going on at the different institutions and where the need is,” says Ross.

Meanwhile, students will experience significant benefits through large cost savings and by having access to books that can be customized to content specific to their courses.