Open resources broaden learning possibilities
When it comes to finding quality educational materials, students and educators share a common dilemma. Quality learning tools can be hard to come by and the best of them can be expensive, giving students an additional financial burden beyond tuition and fees. When cash is tight, or when instructors need materials that go beyond what is readily available in the commercial space, open educational resources (OER) offer one way to bridge the learning gap.
OER are teaching and research materials that exist in the public domain or have been released by their creators under licenses that allow for their free use. These may include streaming videos or digitized textbooks, tests, software and even whole courses.
OER and online education or hybrid learning are "natural partners" in prompting development of new technologies and new means of distribution, according to the Ohio State University Office of the Chief Information Officer. Most OER materials are available online and can be easily accessed both by educators wishing to share those materials with their students, as well as by learners looking to access OER.
Who's doing it?
Numerous examples may be found that illustrate the uses of this innovative and growing phenomenon. For instance, Boston-based content provider Boundless draws openly licensed educational content off the web to create free textbooks and study tools. The company says students at over half of all U.S. colleges are now using its products, which include entirely free textbooks.
Community colleges have been eager to accept OER as an aid to students looking for an economical education. The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources promotes at least two dozen content providers and lists over 45 academic institutions as participating in OER initiatives. Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, for example, connects its teachers with OER sources for textbooks in subjects such as statistics, sociology and economics, among others.
Tufts University offers open course materials in such diverse fields as human-animal relationships, special care dentistry and agricultural science. UC Berkeley's OER offerings include courses in African American studies, biology and economics, among numerous others.
Users have found various ways to incorporate OER into distance learning. Free learning materials can be stored in common repositories for access by distance learners. Online networks of content can be shared across multiple institutions. Educators can collaborate online for course development using open source materials.
All this has led to rising popularity for OER. Recently, for example, a consortium of supporters declared March 1-15 as Open Education Week, with an invitation to participants to contribute videos showcasing their projects, conduct webinars, and host local events promoting open education.
Despite its advantages, OER does need to be handled with care. It is not true, for instance, that all openly licensed materials are free for the taking, notes the international education organization OER Africa. Rather, various legal mechanisms exist to place restrictions on how content can be shared. In some cases, the authors may retain certain rights to their material.
Despite such constraints, educators have found numerous creative ways to put OER into play. Peer 2 Peer University brings learners together via the Internet to share educational experiences. Through OpenStudy, independent and traditional students study together in a variety of subject areas.
In 2011, over 2,700 open access repositories were identified, totaling over 15 million records, according to the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies. Why so much interest? Beyond questions of affordability, many see OER as an opportunity to expand academic horizons. Educational materials developed in an open environment can be shared broadly among teachers from different perspectives. Together, these multiple viewpoints can elevate the overall quality of the material.
OER gives teachers access to a new body of information, without requiring any new investment. As a result, teachers may be freed up to express greater freedom and creativity as they plan their courses.
For students, the net result of all this may be course content that expresses greater breadth and substance than might be found in a single proprietary textbook. And of course there is the basic bottom line: Cheaper reading. With license-free content available online, OER may give students on a lean budget one less expense to worry about.