Open educational resources may hold significant promise for contributing to the kind of progress that genuinely improves higher education in North America. While breathless pronouncements of ‘disruptive innovations’ seem to accompany the predicted demise of universities (except for 10, of course), a relatively small group of OER researchers and practitioners have been quietly working on projects that have actually made a difference.
In the autumn of 2012 at the Open Education Conference at the downtown campus of the University of British Columbia, John Yap, then the Minister of Advanced Education in British Columbia, announced that the provincial government would be funding a project in cooperation with BCCampus to create open textbooks for the 40 most common undergraduate courses offered at BC public universities[note]B.C. to lead Canada in offering students free, open textbooks. Retrieved from https://news.gov.bc.ca/02932[/note]. The number of textbooks funded soon grew to 80 and as of this writing, there are 118 open textbooks available in the repository, with more to come[note]Coolidge, A. (2015). The BC open textbook project turns three. Retrieved from http://open.bccampus.ca/2015/10/16/the-b-c-open-textbook-project-turns-three/[/note].
Open textbooks are a subset of open education resources (OER), which are defined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as
“teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge”[note]Open Educational Resources Retrieved Oct 11, 2015 from http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education/open-educational-resources[/note].
Bliss et al[note]Bliss, T. J., Robinson, T., Hilton, J., III, & Wiley, D. (2013). An OER COUP: College teacher and student perceptions of open education resources. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2013(1). doi:http://doi.org/10.5334/2013-04[/note] suggest that there are four primary categories of effects from OER use, including cost, outcomes, use, and perceptions. These four categories, which form the acronym COUPmay be useful in identifying specific, measurable benefits of OER.
There have been several studies investigating the effects of OER use on cost with results indicating that students collectively save between 50% and 80%, with individual students potentially saving 100% of their textbook costs.[note]Reference Needed[/note].
In light of evidence that OER do reduce student costs, Bliss et al suggest that researchers and practitioners examine how the use of OER affects the attainment of student learning outcomes. While the body of literature is currently small, there is a trend for studies to show that there is no significant difference between how well students using OER perform compared to those who use commercially prepared materials. This is in alignment with a great deal of the literature examining learning differences between various educational interventions[note]see http://www.nosignificantdifference.org/[/note].
Key to the definition of an OER is the fact that they are either in the public domain, or they have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. The BC Open Textbook Project has released their open textbooks under a Creative Commons license, which, beyond allowing free use and repurposing, specify that, while the original author retains copyright, users are permitted and encouraged to exercise five specific rights to the resource, as follows.
Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)[note]Wiley, D. (ND). Defining the ‘open’ in open content. Retrieved from http://www.opencontent.org/definition/[/note]
These rights, collectively known as the 5Rs, may provide opportunity for faculty to interact differently with OER than they might with commercially produced resources.
Also important in promoting the adoption of OER is understanding how both faculty and students perceive OER in relation to commercial resources. Several studies have examined these questions with the predominant perception being that OER and commercial resources are generally equal in terms of perceived quality and effectiveness.
The Medium is the Message
This study will explore how the use of OER influences both learning outcomes and perceptions of OER. In their report, Bliss et al used temporal measures to describe how much more or less students accessed OER compared to commercial resources. All other things considered equal (such as quality), it seems evident that outcomes should be improved if students access required texts more often.
Beyond that, however, McLuhan [YEAR] argues that how a message is transmitted influences the message itself. OER seem to be a clear example of how medium and message interact to influence the message. For example, a faculty member may find, create, or revise an OER and provide for their students the best possible free resource for use in their class, but if it is deployed in a closed environment, such as a proprietary LMS, or other similarly locked-down platform, then there will necessarily be limitations on how the resources can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed, thereby nullifying the open license.
Biggs & Tang[note]Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (4th ed.). New York: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.[/note] argue that the more important component in students attaining learning outcomes is what students do, rather than what faculty do. However, I intend to argue that, while the activity of students is critical, learning environments can be enhanced to improve the likelihood that students will take deeper approaches to their learning, and that it is faculty activities, enabled by the 5R rights, that are the controllable factors in improving the learning environment.
The BCcampus open textbook project is an example of how a platform for deploying OER is a critical component of how the OER can be used to enable the 5Rs for both faculty and students. All 118 open textbooks are hosted in WordPress supported by a customized version of the PressBooks plugin. Each textbook is available for download in a number of formats, including options that can be retained, reused, and redistributed but not revised or remixed such as a printed copy or PDF, but also as XML WordPress backup files, HTML, and ODT that support all the 5R rights.
Thompson Rivers University has also used WordPress to support the deployment of OER, but has also begun promoting open pedagogies, or the use of learning activities that are conducted on the open web using open platforms. Examples include the rMOOC (social justice), the YouShow (ePortfolios), and the Online Teaching and Learning (faculty development) course.