In late September 2019, I joined NEBHE as its Open Education Fellow to help build upon the grassroots efforts that have been underway for years in the Northeast aiming to lessen the burden that textbook costs place on higher education students and their families. Like so many of my colleagues doing this work day in and day out, I’m passionate about breaking down this very real barrier to student learning and success. Many people still have only a vague sense of “Open Education,” so I’d like to share some thoughts on what it is and why it matters.
I recently attended my third Open Education Global Conference in November 2019 at Politecnico di Milano in Milan, Italy. As always, I returned home from the conference, feeling inspired after engaging with colleagues from around the globe who are doing amazing things to make education more equitable and attainable for students.
The final conference keynote delivered by Cheryl-Ann Hodgkinson-Williams of the University of Cape Town in South Africa defined “open education” as an umbrella term that encompasses the products, practices and communities associated with this work. The common term that represents the products of Open Education is OER (Open Educational Resources).
OER has been defined by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation as teaching, learning and research materials in any medium–digital or otherwise–that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions. OER include textbooks, ancillary material like quiz banks, lesson plans and syllabi, as well as full-course modules, multimedia such as video, audio and photographs, and any other intellectual property that can be protected by copyright. In short, OER can be simplified to Free + Permissions: free for the student to access and permission to partake in most if not all of the “5R” activities of reuse, revise, remix, redistribute and retain the resource at hand in perpetuity.
A learning resource may be low-cost or even free to the student, but not qualify as OER. For example, library-licensed content like e-books and scholarly journal articles are “free” for the student to access for a limited time, but those materials are still copyrighted, and in fact, are paid for by budgets supported by student tuition. This means that those resources are not actually free, and when students graduate, they lose digital access to these resources due to strict publisher agreements between the library and the publisher that stipulate only currently enrolled students be granted access. Traditional publishing is a business, after all.
Another concept often conflated with OER is the “inclusive access” model. This is sweeping through our college bookstores today. Like OER, inclusive access models aim to ensure that all students have access to their learning materials on day one of class with the cost rolled into their tuition. Unlike with true OER, however, students lose access to these materials after the semester ends because of those copyright restrictions set by the publisher. Inclusive access models also strip students of their right under the “first sale doctrine” that so many took advantage of before the age of digital textbooks. This doctrine, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, states that an individual who knowingly purchases a legal copy of a copyrighted work (in this case, a textbook) from the copyright holder receives the right to sell it in the secondhand market. Single-semester access (like through the inclusive access model) doesn’t serve students who are taking courses in a sequence, studying for the GRE, changing careers, retaking a class or simply trying to be informed citizens throughout their lives, notes Nicole Finkbeiner, director of OpenStax at Rice University. True OER, in contrast, allow students to retain their learning content in perpetuity, serving students and learners of all ages and stages.
I often get asked: “Are the costs of textbooks really such a burden?” Yes, they are. Let’s take a closer look at the current landscape in higher ed that has educators rallying around openly licensed resources and their pedagogical benefits.
A 2018 survey of Florida’s higher education institutions showed that 64% of students aren’t purchasing the required textbook for their courses because of the high cost, 43% are taking fewer courses and 36% are earning a poor grade just because they were unable to afford the book.
A former student of mine who was a veteran was forced to wait six weeks until his stipend for books was distributed. That’s six weeks’ worth of readings, assignments, quizzes and exams for which he did not have his textbook to reference and help him prepare. Many might argue, “Just put the books on a credit card and pay it off later!” This simply isn’t an option for so many students who don’t have access to a credit card or don’t wish to take on more student debt. It’s also unrealistic for educators to determine if an assigned textbook is “affordable” or not for their students. What’s affordable for one student may be a burden for another, and it’s impossible to study from a book you can’t afford.
Academic hardships aren’t the only repercussions of expensive textbooks for our students. Many are forced to make tough decisions like skipping meals, falling behind on rent and other cost-of-living bills in order to afford their course materials. The staggering gap between state funding and tuition is putting an increasing burden on students and their families to come up with money to fund their education. While faculty have little to no control over tuition costs, they can exercise their academic freedom and elect to use OER to help alleviate the high cost of textbooks, which helps all students.
Source: Florida Virtual Campus (2019). 2019 Florida Virtual Campus Student Textbook & Course Materials Survey. Tallahassee, Fla.
Saving students money on textbooks is critical. No student should have to decide between basic human needs like buying groceries or medications, paying rent and utility bills, going to the doctor or buying their textbooks. But we cannot pat ourselves on the back and stop at OER. My colleague on NEBHE’s Open Education Advisory Committee, Robin DeRosa at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, put it best: “I don’t want to replace an expensive, static textbook with a free, static textbook.” She’s right. OER is not the end all be all solution, and we can’t stop there.
Not just a textbook case
Moreover, the work being done in OER extends far beyond advocating for free textbooks. Scholars and practitioners work together to continuously re-examine how to improve and build upon the existing successes, challenges and opportunities that accompany the products, practices and communities of Open Education.
Open Education has the potential to provide so many more pathways for engaged learning and innovative pedagogies, increase opportunities to intentionally build in UDL (Universal Design for Learning) practices that normalize accessibility, empower our students as content creators and contributors to the Knowledge Commons, and leverage equitable access to high-quality learning resources for all students, particularly historically marginalized groups.
Robin DeRosa and her students co-edited and published the Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature (with an open license, of course!) Students took on multiple tasks ranging from locating literature for inclusion, writing chapter introductions, and translating documents into modern English. While creating a free and openly licensed textbook for future students, DeRosa’s students also assumed the role of content creators and became published authors. The open license allows this student-created resource to be adapted and revised by other faculty and students, and interactive learning tools like Hypothes.is and H5P can be integrated into the textbook to remove that “static” element. (To view some other real examples of how educators are leveraging Open Education to encourage students take agency over their own learning experiences, I recommend checking out The Open Pedagogy Notebook, run by DeRosa and Rajiv Jhangiani, associate vice provost, open education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.)
Deploying the products of Open Education, we have the potential to level the playing field and grant all students equitable access to high-quality, free postsecondary instructional materials.
Lindsey Gumb is an assistant professor and the scholarly communications librarian at Roger Williams University, where she has been leading OER adoption, revision and creation since 2016, focusing heavily on OER-enabled pedagogy collaborations with faculty. She co-chairs the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative Steering Committee and the is Fellow for Open Education at the New England Board of Higher Education. She was awarded a 2019-20 OER Research Fellowship to conduct research on undergraduate student awareness of copyright and fair use and open licensing as it pertains to their participation in OER-enabled pedagogy projects.