Book learnin’ for free


It seems almost everyone has heard of Massive Open Online Courses by now, but far fewer are aware of the rest of the spectrum of open educational resources. UNESCO coined OERs in 2002 and defined them as: “the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for noncommercial purposes.”

The concept of “open” is still varied, and very much debated, but generally it follows the framework set out by David Wiley, whose work is foundational within the open-education movement. In order to be open, the material must be readily accessible and anyone wishing to use it is able to revise, reuse, remix and redistribute.

Last year I flew to Utah for the 13th-annual Open Education Conference in Park Lake City. Every year in November, educators from all over the world gather to discuss open education, and this year two of the most popular topic were MOOCs and open textbooks. I’m currently writing my thesis on the adoption of open textbooks by instructors and my research has paralleled a time when Alberta is asking a lot of tough questions about the future of post-secondary education.

2013 saw the largest post-secondary cuts in 20 years. The workplace is changing and students require more flexible options for higher education. At the same time, with the costs of textbooks placed at $900 – $1600 annually per student, it is obvious there are barriers to post-secondary education that aren’t solved with eLearning alone.

Alberta students are starting to catch on to the idea of open textbooks. In January, Metro ran a story about the new policy accepted by the Council of Alberta University Students to adopt official policy calling for open textbooks. The policy heralds open textbooks as innovations that are cost-effective and will save both students and taxpayers money. They also cite British Columbia’s recent successes in undertaking a successful open-textbook initiative. The BC government and BCcampus have an open-textbook program that was set up by government to make textbooks for the 40 highest enrolled first- and second-year programs freely available for students electronically, or at low cost for a print-on-demand version.

Conner Brown, chair of the council at CAUS says initially there was some concern from faculty at the University of Calgary about moving to adopt the textbooks, but Brown says they have really come around. He says early talks with Dave Hancock, Minister of Advanced Education, have gone well and there may be something in the works soon.

“Given the rising cost of textbooks, it’s no surprise that students see real benefit in open-textbook programs, including personal cost savings and the ability to have their course text available for free in a digital format that they can carry on a tablet or other mobile device.”

Dr David Porter, executive director of BCcampus (and in the spirit of full disclosure, also my thesis supervisor),

says that government can help with the development of an open textbook.

“Open-textbook programs are funded by two sources generally,” Porter says. “Foundation grants or government funding programs. Both have a place in helping bootstrap a new approach to authoring and licensing of educational materials. In a public-education system, government funding support seems a natural extension of the investment governments make in helping to develop an educated citizenry. Open educational materials are part of a new information infrastructure for education.”

Porter says some of the biggest opposition to OERs comes from a lack of good information about how open licences work.

“They work with copyright, not against it,” Porter adds. “An open licence is an expression of rights by an author extending them to peers or the public with specific use rights. The Creative Commons licences have provided an amazing mechanism to support reuse, revision, remixing and redistribution of open resources and open textbooks. But we still need to educate and train more people in the education community to use these licences effectively.”

Some of the arguments against open textbooks appear tenuous at best. When professors cite the need for academic freedom, perhaps they should look more closely at what freedom open education provides for an instructor: the ability to manipulate course materials, to update and repurpose at will. As for getting your work out as an academic, the Open Citation Project has collected a bibliography of studies all demonstrating that having your work released on an open licence means increased downloads and citations. Looking at it that way, those educators locked behind paywalls have a freedom that is beginning to look rather limited.



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