Advocates say higher education would be better served by resources that are truly open -- not just free.
12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT
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Freely downloadable textbooks and other open educational resources (OERs) are starting to have a practical impact, saving college students millions of dollars even as advocates struggle to distinguish the OER movement from the rise of the massive open online courses (MOOCs).
By the standards of OER, the MOOCs distributed by the commercial operations Coursera and Udacity as well as the non-profit edX are only partly open. I'll come back to this distinction later. When I moderated a panel discussion on OER last week at the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, MOOCs were a side issue, but an important one.
OER materials include textbooks, but also shorter content modules and quizzes, software, videos of lectures and anything else made freely available for educational use, typically under a Creative Commons license requiring attribution only.
I'd been introduced to the conference organizers by one of the panelists, Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University who in 1999 founded one of the first OER repositories, Connexions. As director of the Rice Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship, he continues to oversee that project as well as a couple of newer ones, OpenStax College and OpenStax Tutor. I wrote about OpenStax Tutor, an open source software project that aims to apply machine learning techniques to educational software, after seeing Baraniuk present at the SXSWEdu event in March.
OpenStax Tutor is exciting work, but it's OpenStax College, a foundation-funded initiative to create polished and peer reviewed textbooks for a host of introductory-level college classes, that looks likely to have the biggest impact.
Inspired by open source projects such as Linux, Connexions began as a free and open repository of course modules that instructors could mix and match at will. OpenStax College is based on a realization that most instructors don't have time for that. OpenStax books are produced on a relatively conventional academic and editorial model, incorporating extensive artwork and three levels of peer review. That means they cost from about $500,000 to $750,000 to create, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other philanthropic groups. Already OpenStax College reports that students have saved about $3.8 million in the past year, mostly on the basis of the first two textbooks released (Physics and Sociology).
Baraniuk calls that "a pretty good return on investment under a venture philanthropy model," where for every dollar donors invest OpenStax will pay back a multiple of that dollar in student savings. This year OpenStax published two biology books (one for majors and one for non-majors), along with Anatomy and Physiology. Next up are Chemistry, Introductory Statistics, Pre-calculus, U.S. History, Principles of Economics, Principles of Macroeconomics, Principles of Microeconomics, and Psychology. The books can be viewed online, downloaded in PDF form, or purchased in print, essentially for the cost of paper and ink. OpenStax Physics, for example, is a 1,200-page book in print and costs about $48, compared to $248 for the commercial equivalent, according to Baraniuk, and inexpensive ebooks are also available.
Students could use some financial relief. According to an American Enterprise Institute analysis, the cost of textbooks has risen 812% since 1978, compared with a 250% increase in the consumer price index. As a point of reference, medical costs (often described as "spiraling out of control") are up 575% in the same period, according to AEI. The burden is significant enough that 7 in 10 students say they have skipped buying a textbook for a course, trying to make do without it because of the cost.
OpenStax adopted a conventional editorial process because that was required to win acceptance in academia, Baraniuk said, but the books are still published in the same modular fashion. That means instructors have the option of creating their own versions, perhaps introducing their own edits or swapping in content from a different source, and assigning that remix. At last count, there were 41 altered versions of OpenStax Physics available in the Connexions repository.
That flexibility is a strong selling point, said Mark Morvant, a chemistry professor who serves as executive director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Oklahoma. Most faculty members aren't in love with their existing textbook, he told me. "They may love 90% of it, but there's one thing they'd like to change." One way his center is trying to make it easier for instructors to take advantage of these resources is to provide them with backup, such as help from a graduate student.
Even faculty members who like OER textbooks often aren't willing to walk away from the online tutorial and homework tools publishers now commonly bundle in, Morvant said. However, one professor got around that by continuing to assign a commercial book for physics, which got him access to the online homework tools, while designating OpenStax Physics as his second book for the course -- and many students elected to use the free book instead, Morvant said.
On our panel was De Anza College professor Barbara Illowsky, a coauthor of the forthcoming OpenStax statistics book. An earlier edition of Illowsky's textbook is already available in Connexions under its original title, Collaborative Statistics, and she estimates that one book has saved students more than $1 million at De Anza College alone.
Illowsky and a colleague originally created the textbook for a commercial publisher but later bought back the rights so they could self-publish and offer it to students at a better price. Putting the book into Connexions allowed them to get out of the publishing business. "The part I didn't expect was it became a much better textbook and a better learning experience [because of feedback from the Connexions community]," Illowsky said.
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