Date of this Version
White paper, published August 2016
At the Spring 2016 CNI Membership Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, we held an Executive Roundtable on the topic of Institutional Strategies for Open Educational Resources (OERs). While this is clearly a topic of growing interest in higher education institutions, we did not anticipate the overwhelming response by CNI member institutions seeking to attend this roundtable. To meet the demand, we offered two sessions of the roundtable (with different institutions participating in each) on Sunday, April 3, and Monday, April 4. We were fortunate to have a student OER advocate from one of our participating institutions join one of the sessions, further enriching an already very diverse set of roles and perspectives among the participants.
Historically, there have been two relatively distinct drivers for OERs. One is focused on improving teaching and learning by developing and sharing learning objects, particularly those that employ new media and information technology platforms. The second driver is economic, focusing on high cost printed textbooks, often associated with large enrollment introductory level courses.
In the first case, for many years, faculty, educational technologists, librarians, and others have been creating digital learning materials; often these resources have been developed by faculty specifically for the courses they teach. The materials include syllabi, readings and textbooks, problem sets, quizzes, images and videos, software, and interactive materials. Some are of use mostly to other faculty, who may adopt, and perhaps adapt, the materials for their own teaching needs, while other materials are of direct value to students both for self-study and within structured educational settings; some materials can play both roles. When such resources are either in the public domain or offered under licenses that permit free reuse and adaptation within educational contexts, they are often generically called open educational resources (OERs). A number of projects have attempted to support the creation, collection, curation, discovery, and sharing of these resources, but despite extensive and repeated investments (there is a history of major projects in this area such as Merlot and the National Science Digital Library funded by the National Science Foundation) and some passionate advocates, they seem to have had limited uptake in higher education institutions.
In the second case, the development of resources addresses both concerns with the rapidly rising costs of traditional printed textbooks (and efforts to minimize the secondhand market in such textbooks through frequent new editions) and concerns that as textbooks move to digital form, or add digital supplements (including material for students and material for faculty such as teachers guides, problem sets and solution manuals, or content for learning management systems) the overall costs of learning materials paid directly by students will continue to escalate rapidly. Given the pressures to control costs in higher education, interest in the economic case for OER materials is growing. A number of library and IT organizations in higher education have been actively involved in OER textbook projects, as have some foundations and government agencies. Note that economic success via an OER strategy is relatively easy to measure, and that the impacts may be highest on undergraduates receiving significant financial aid or those in community colleges, since textbook costs represent a larger part of the overall cost of access to higher education for these sectors. The difference of several hundred dollars per semester could be a significant factor in student retention, and therefore OERs could play an important role in students’ ability to stay in school.
A third case that emerged through discussions at the roundtables was an emphasis on assisting faculty to identify materials that they could compile into digital “readers” by locating freely available content on the web and/or materials already licensed by the library, or even licensing new materials. These would result in collections of course readings that would be freely available to students. With this strategy, the licensed content is not an OER but results in students having access to course resources without any direct payment. In many of the participating institutions, all three strategies are being employed to offer educational resources to students at no direct cost to them (though the importance of understanding when genuine cost savings were being gained as opposed to simply shifting costs from students to the institution was repeatedly underscored).
At the roundtable, we found that there is a diversity of policy positions among universities and colleges on their stance towards OER, from a laissez-faire, hands-off stance or actual disinterest by the university administration to a commitment of institutional resources at the presidential or provost level to support an OER program, often focused on a particular OER strategy. Leadership was viewed as important; a number of institutions reported with some frustration the difficulty of moving beyond isolated and uncoordinated pockets of interest to substantive change at scale without such a locus. Institutions reported that developing OER was not just about saving money, but potentially to develop better educational resources, bringing in new voices and developing materials in new fields where no textbook currently exists; in some of those cases, the economic incentive is not a primary factor.