What's the state of OER and where do we go next?

In honor of Open Education Week, we take a look at open educational resources in higher ed

While higher education tuition continues its steady rise, outpacing inflation, and room and board costs also increase, there’s one cost some might say is moving in the right direction.

Even while the number of course materials students buy has stayed level, average student spending dropped almost 20% from 2007 to 2015. Rich Hershman, vice president of government relations at the National Association of College Stores, points to that data as evidence that open educational resources are having an impact on the market.

Right around the time NACS started tracking average student spending on course materials, it took a stance on OER, saying it would create healthy competition and offer students more choices. As expected, Hershman said, costs are going down for students.

In honor of Open Education Week, we discussed the state of the OER marketplace with a couple of experts, as well as the opportunities they have their eyes on.

Hershman counts about 10 significant repositories in the higher education OER space, and each is a little different. There are curated libraries like the Open Textbook Library at the University of Minnesota, which features Amazon-style quality reviews that help faculty put the resources in context, or the Open Course Library, which offers materials for entire courses, built by trusted faculty-librarian-course designer teams through the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

These, like Openstax, look familiar to faculty. The content is a lot like what they have long recognized as “textbooks.”

On the other end of the spectrum is one of the largest repositories of open educational resources, the California State University System’s Merlot. In some ways, Merlot takes more user expertise to navigate because it features smaller fragments of content. Instead of accessing the system to find complete textbooks or materials for an entire course, users would go to Merlot to find elements that can later be packaged together.

While a handful of universities and systems have tried to move as far toward OER as possible, many have settled into a middle-ground that encourages high-quality course materials that are as affordable as possible, whether they are open source or commercial.

That’s what the Washington state colleges did from the beginning. Tom Caswell, director of learning engineering at Learning Objects, was the open education policy associate with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges during the development of the Open Course Library. He said that flexibility between affordable commercial texts — cheaper than $30 — and free, open source content was a key element of the project.

“If faculty could find great resources that were low-cost, that was in line with what we were trying to do  which was provide great resources to faculty which, in turn, were connected to low-cost or free texts for students,” Caswell said.

The importance of involving faculty in the library development was another takeaway for Caswell, along with a voluntary use policy for faculty teaching courses that ended up in the library. No one was mandated to use the curated materials.

While the project is considered a major achievement now, looking back, Caswell said there was a fair amount of faculty opposition to overcome along the way. Surveys continue to reveal faculty hesitation about OER and any institutions launching their own repositories for open content should be prepared to do at least some convincing.

To Hershman, the next big challenge for OER will be to develop better tools for identifying quality within the OER space. Course materials, in general, are hard to identify because of the lack of independent quality evaluation, whether the materials are commercial or open source. FacultyEnlight from Barnes & Noble College and Hero from Sidewalk are starting to help with the discovery and adoption process of open educational resources.

These discoverability tools are what Hershman is most excited about, especially as more faculty use them and help improve them.

“Being able to think about, from a cost perspective, how one textbook compares to another, to be able to see what peers are using the materials, what their reviews are of the materials, and then being able to take those materials and adopt them,” Hershman said, “that’s where I’m really excited about where things are starting to develop in the future.”

Caswell, in turn, is focusing on the potential for personalized learning that seems inherent to OER. The content is flexible and can be easily tailored to fit student needs or updated based on their feedback. Right now, Caswell calls most OER flat.

“The next step for OER is to get away from flat resources and put OER in personalized spaces that allow students to really benefit individually from those resources,” Caswell said.


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