Textbooks and course materials distributed like open source software are becoming a serious force in both primary and higher education.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

March 13, 2013

8 Min Read

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT (click image for slideshow)

Education technology consultant Karen Fasimpaur sounds like a revolutionary when she gets fired up talking about the potential of open educational resources (OER), the textbooks and other educational tools made available as free downloads or interactive Web experiences.

"We have an opportunity to take back the curriculum!" she told educators at last week's SXSWedu event. "What if we took the $5 billion annually spent on textbooks and invested that in teachers and their work?"

The revolution might not be that total, but it is happening. Fasimpaur, the principal of the education technology consulting firm K12 Handhelds, was talking mostly about OER applied to K-12. However, open resources are just as much of a force in higher education and are one of the underpinnings of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

[ Massive open online courses are coming into their own. Read Is 2013 Year Of The MOOC? ]

Although the OER movement might not have quite the sex appeal of MOOCs, it could wind up having more of an impact for more students because it applies to all modes of education, online and off.

As with open-source software, there can be legitimate questions of whether you get what you pay for when you pay nothing for the products of the OER movement. The first instinct of the commercial publishers of textbooks and other educational materials has been to dismiss OER products as low quality, but even they are having to change their tune. With philanthropic organizations dedicated to lowering the cost of education providing funding, several non-profit organizations are now providing the peer review and editorial resources necessary for academic respectability. These include Rice University's OpenStax College and CK-12 Foundation for primary education, both of which release materials under a Creative Commons license that lets the materials be freely downloaded and remixed as needed to meet the needs of a particular class. Khan Academy videos also are published under Creative Commons, although under a variant that restricts commercial use.

Open education is very much in the air this week -- which happens to be Open Education Week. On Monday, Wiley announced a partnership with OpenStax to create a college biology product that combines OpenStax textbook materials with Wiley's interactive learning tools. The recently announced Amplify Tablet for K-12 schools also comes pre-loaded with a generous helping of OER materials, including CK12's FlexBooks and Khan Academy videos.

Fasimpaur thinks the current curriculum shakeup caused by the Common Core State Standards Initiative presents an opportunity "and we should seize it to do things differently."

"Districts all over the country right now are thinking about new curriculum and where to go next," Fasimpaur said. Her fear is that educators will settle on a new set of traditional, proprietary textbooks aligned with the new curriculum standards, "and will go about doing business as usual."

Fasimpaur also made a connection to the maker movement, saying instruction can go beyond the textbook to creating things with Legos, or wood, or storytelling. "When we create, hack, and play, whether digital things or real, we're learning about creating, not just consuming things," she said. Used properly, these instructional tactics can lead to "deeper learning in 21st century skills like collaborating and creating."

"As teachers, we can also make things -- we can create powerful learning experiences, and I think we can make things that are better than what has been purchased in the past," Fasimpaur said.

In higher education, OER owes a lot to the pioneering work of MIT, which introduced its MIT OpenCourseWare website in 2002 and by 2007 put its entire curriculum online, free of charge.

OpenStax College Physics

David Harris, editor-in-chief for OpenStax College and a related Rice University OER resource, the modular learning resource library Connexions, sees a transition to "OER 2.0."

"In OER 1.0, you had early adopters who were willing to put up with a lot of pain," Harris said. "The material may not be vetted and may not be high quality. For OER 2.0, you want something more like a mainstream model." That means making OER materials easier to find and more convenient to work with for instructors who are not necessarily techies. Also, where the authors of OER 1.0 materials were typically volunteers, Harris said OER 2.0 drives up quality standards by finding the money to pay authors and reviewers -- albeit under a non-profit model that supports the release of the content under an open license.

Two major sources of funding for OpenStax and many other OER products are the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which coined the term "open educational resources" in a 2002 report, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other philanthropic partners for OpenStax College include the Twenty Million Minds Foundation and the Maxwell Foundation.

This philanthropic slant doesn't stop OpenStax from forming commercial partnerships. Although Wiley is the first commercial textbook partner, OpenStax College also has worked with Amazon.com, which distributes paper versions of the textbooks (about $75 including shipping for College Physics), or produces $4.99 iBook editions for students who want the downloadable text optimized to read on an iPad.

The Web page for the OpenStax College Physics textbook also points students and their professors to commercially produced interactive study materials from Sapling Learning and The Expert TA. Sapling Learning CEO James Caras said his firm can also play something like the role that Red Hat does for Linux, the open-source operating system. "We can take care of some of the things that are difficult for non-profits to do," he said. "We're in right next to publisher's sales reps talking to faculty about OpenStax."

The partnership allows OpenStax College to focus on developing its textbooks while "Sapling can be maniacal about providing the best problem solving practice," Caras said. Sapling also provides support and training resources for the effective use of OER materials, he said. Net Texts Inc. is trying to do something similar at the K-12 level, promoting a catalog of educational content through an app it has created for the iPad and Android tablets. The directory is also accessible from a Web browser, and a version for Google's Chromebook is in the works. Net Texts has culled through resources available from CK12, Khan Academy, MIT, the Smithsonian and other resources to find materials that would be useful for K-12 instruction. "This resource, if organized properly, is already superior to flat textbooks in my opinion," co-founder Michael Messner said.

The iPad app also mashes up resources -- for example, combining dramatic readings of classic literature from LibriVox synchronized with display of the text taken from Project Gutenberg, a digital library of public domain books.

Net Text's app and access to its directory are free, but it does charge for consulting services. One early customer is the school district in Amarillo, Texas. District director of digital learning Chuck Higley said one reason he has been able to explore new options is a change in the state funding formula for textbooks and technology that "puts textbooks and technology in competition for the same pot of money."

Through a pilot program at two high schools, Amarillo is exploring whether it makes sense to invest in buying students iPads if most of the educational materials they will need to access can be free or low-cost. That doesn't mean everyone is convinced, Higley said. "Some people are in favor of spending the money on traditional textbooks. Some people, like myself, think we should never buy another hard copy textbook again."

One sidelight to this story is the extent to which Texas, which has been known for politically charged debates over the choice of state-wide textbook standards, is allowing school districts greater flexibility, partly to open up digital options. Although the state continues to set educational standards, superintendents can make an exception by signing off on alternate materials as meeting the same educational goals.

Messner said he ran into more political obstacles when investigating the potential of his product in higher education. One university he talked to told him "yes, but we get a kickback for our business with Barnes & Noble, and we're not sure we want to get rid of that kickback."

Harris said OpenStax is looking for avenues to work with college bookstores, rather than undercutting them, by enlisting them to sell print-on-demand editions. "The bookstores we've worked with to date are pleased by the 100% sell-through they're getting," he said. "But it is something we need to address."

Erik Christensen, the physics chair at South Florida State College, said he was initially told to keep his introduction of OER resources "under the radar" to avoid upsetting the college bookstore's management. However, after winning an award from the OER community, "I'm now upheld as a model," he said. "My whole institution has changed and I was the change agent."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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