Open Educational Resources (OER) To Be a Game Changer in Higher Education

Karen L. Pedersen, Ph.D., Chief Knowledge Officer, Online Learning Consortium
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Karen L. Pedersen, Ph.D., Chief Knowledge Officer, Online Learning Consortium

Higher education is in a time of great change. No matter the perspective, from administrators to faculty members and from students to policy makers, the higher education landscape is forever transforming. The days of primarily 18 year olds attending a residential campus for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree are over. Yes, there are still students who realize that traditional route, however, 85 percent of Americans enrolled in higher education institutions today are post-traditional (Soares, 2013). These post-traditional, or contemporary learners, are working adults, single parents, military personnel and their families, veterans, caregivers, farm families, and others. For them, classroom-based learning creates enormous challenges of time, access, and cost.

Online learning has certainly been an accelerator within this changing landscape by providing greater access to education for the post-traditional learner. As online education emerged in the 1990’s, it ushered in a time of unprecedented opportunities for innovation in teaching and learning. Today, it is not uncommon to read articles about digital courseware, mobile learning, learning analytics and other formative assessment tools, flipped classrooms, competency-based education initiatives, massive open online courses (MOOC’s), blended learning, and open educational resources, among others. The impact of technology fueling many of these trends is not surprising, especially as billions have been invested worldwide in education-tech start-ups and more mainstream companies in recent years (Adkins, 2016). Opportunities for learning are provided not only in the classroom, in blended formats or online, they are also being provided in self-paced, on-demand, and adaptive modalities. Technology innovation drives a just-in-time educational landscape with learning opportunities from traditional providers like colleges and universities offering certificates and degrees to new entrants providing micro-credentialing or badging.

No matter the learning modality, the provider, or the demographics of the learner. Open and digital content is fueling many of today’s learning environments. While we could go into the weeds focusing on learning objects and metadata, stepping back a bit provides a more comprehensive view.

Much has been written about leveraging digital and open educational resources (OER) to positively impact on issues of access and affordability for students, encourage self-regulated and independent learning, broaden curricular participation and collaboration, co-create and continually improve resources fostering instructional innovative, facilitate scalability, and enrich teaching and learning environments. So what are open educational resources? One definition used frequently is that of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation:

OER are 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.

  ‚ÄčThe impact of technology fueling many of these trends is not surprising, especially as billions have been invested worldwide in education-tech start-ups 

If you are wondering about the prevalence, value, and efficacy of OER within higher education, a look from four different perspectives provides great insights. Consider this view from:

Higher Education Administrators: The 2015 Campus Computing Survey (Green, 2015) of senior IT leaders (e.g., CIO’s, CTO’s) at 417 2-year and 4-year campuses reveal that almost all (94 percent) agree or strongly agree that “digital curricular resources make learning more efficient and effective for students.” Most (87 percent) report that “digital curricular resources provide a richer and more personalized learning experience than traditional print materials.” When asked specifically about OER, 81 percent of participants agree that “Open Source textbooks/Open Education Resource (OER) content will be an important source for instructional resources in five years”.

College and University Faculty Members: In a recent survey entitled Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education (Allen and Seaman, 2016), responses from 3006 faculty members found that “only 6.6 percent of faculty reported that they were very aware of open educational resources, with around three times that many (19 percent) saying that they were aware.” According to the study, the barriers to adopting OER most often cited by faculty are that “there are not enough resources for my subject” (49 percent), it is “too hard to find what I need” (48 percent) and “there is no comprehensive catalog of resources” (45 percent).

State Policy Makers: While awareness and adoption of OER in the U.S. has been a bit more uneven when considering the global OER movement, two states in particular have tackled the rising cost of textbooks through legislative action. Those states include California and North Dakota. Both initiatives are focusing on some of the barriers to adoption as identified by faculty members. While still in the early days given their longitudinal focus, realizing systemic change within their respective states is critical to their long-term success.

Students: While a large, comprehensive study of student perceptions of OER is lacking in the U.S., a study from the United Kingdom provides a valuable lens into the student perspective. In 2013, invitations to complete a survey were sent to almost 40,000 students from the National Union of Students (NUS) database (Bone and McNichol, 2014). The study entitled Students Views on Learning Methods and Open Educational Resources in Higher Education resulted in 2,807 usable responses divided into traditional learners (43 percent) and non-traditional learners (57 percent). Non-traditional included students studying at the Open University / those studying on a part-time basis, / students over 25 years of age.

When students were asked, “What, if anything, do you understand by the term open educational resources?” most students (82 percent of traditional learners and 83 percent of non-traditional learners) were able to identify at least some of the features of open educational resources such as accessibility, sharing, and choice. Approximately two-thirds of both student groups were aware of OERs as part of their course. Additionally, a majority of both traditional and non-traditional students expected the use of OERs to increase during the rest of their studies, approximately a fifth in each case thought it would increase “a lot”. Less than 2 percent of either group of students expected that the use of OER’s would decrease.

Is the OER movement here to stay? If the growth in Creative Commons’ licenses is any indicator, then the answer is yes. Licenses have increased at an astonishing rate from 140 million pieces of content in 2006, to 400 million in 2010, to 1.1 billion in 2015 (Merkley, 2015). It’s not just a higher education movement either. Within K – 12 and even corporate training environments, open education resources can transform teaching/training/learning environments.

Even though you may not work in higher education, open educational resources are probably touching someone you know. If you are interested in learning more, a quick web search will take you to OER resource guides and organizations focusing on OER. That search will lead you to OER-focused conferences, webinars, and professional development opportunities. You can do a deep dive into OER specifics from a knowledge management perspective or just learn more about the movement. Enjoy your journey!

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