SI521 "Open Educational Resources at the University of Michigan" Open Textbook/Challenges of Producing OER

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Introduction[edit]

Since the turn of the century, the Open Educational Resources movement has been gaining steam. It has the lofty goals of increasing faculty productivity and student learning outcomes. It also seeks to impact less developed parts of the world by reducing barriers of entry to higher education and increasing the quality of education there. An educational institution may wish to become involved is the movement by hosting or participating in an OER project, but if it hopes to be successful, there are a few challenges it must confront. Almost any institution that decides to participate in an OER project will have to address the issues of motivation for producing the system and its content, the sustainability of the system, the quality of the content, and the economic impact that the system may have.

For a more in depth definition of what OER is, please see the Intro to Open chapter. For this discussion, the important thing to keep in mind is that OER are educational resources that are free to use, modify, and redistribute as one sees fit. Another possible part of the OER equation is collaboration, where individuals can each add their own little bits to make a grand whole, ala Wikipedia. This draws upon the power of the crowd, and lowers the investment an individual must make to participate. However, educational materials seem to not quite work in the Wikipedia model, where a bit contribution can indeed be small. Educational resources can still be made via collaboration, but the parts each person brings are usually larger, more developed pieces.

Motivation[edit]

If educational materials used to be a way of making income, by selling something that was produced, and making those resources open means that there is no longer direct money being made, the question of why becomes important. What could possibly be gained by giving away something for free? From an economic standpoint, nothing will be done if there is not an incentive for doing it. From an OER standpoint, it is probably smarter to look at the motivations institutions and individuals have for producing and sharing materials.

Institutional[edit]

Why should an institution become involved in creating and hosting open content? After all, if others are creating open content, wouldn't it be easier to just use theirs? There are many possible motivations for an institution to become involved in an OER project, and in most cases it is a combination of many or all of them that drive participation.

One of the motivations for participating in an OER project is simple altruism. A university is a bastion of knowledge, and sharing that knowledge is a good thing to do. Part of the academic tradition is passing on knowledge. Disseminating it as far and as cheaply as possible is in full support of article 26 of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration: “Everyone has the right to education.” [1] OER is seen as a clear way to help improve the world.

For institutions that are funded by public money, participating in an OER model may be seen as an obligation. To use taxpayer money to develop resources and then lock them behind institutional doors or passwords on the institutional network is seen as poor leveraging of those funds. By making those resources available to all, the institution allows other publicly funded institutions to utilize them and also gives directly back to the public that funds it.

An institution may feel pressure to engage in an OER project in order to compete with other institutions on a global level. The project can act as a public relations tool for the general public (almost like advertising), or as a way of enticing prospective students. Allowing a student to preview the type of material they would be using at a school gives them a better sense of what the school is about, and may lower the intimidation factor of starting out. Having a taste of the learning available may become students' new standard for judging prospective schools. Opening the content to all may also open the doors to groups that the institution was not reaching before.

Improving internal collaboration and sharing is another incentive an institution may have for becoming involved in an OER initiative. Reuse allows the cost of content development to be cut, hopefully opening up more resources for the development of innovative or higher quality materials. Peer production reduces duplication of effort, and when professional peers are able to interact with material, there is increased pressure for initial quality as well as a means to quickly improve the work.

Economic incentives may also be in play. A hope to recruit more students, as mentioned above, may tie directly into the tuition money they bring. Government and private grants can be secured to develop an OER project. If an institution sees that one or more of its resources is being highly utilized, it may have a basis of developing fuller, commercial products from them.

Individual[edit]

Once an institution has decided to support an OER project, the question of why individuals within that institution should contribute their materials arises. For that matter, if an OER system is truly open, and anyone outside the institution can contribute as well, what are their motivations? By the model of old economic thought, authors “must be remunerated for their literary labor. And there are only two ways in which they can be remunerated. One of those ways is patronage; the other is copyright.” [2] However, it is now accepted that there are forms of remuneration other than money. As is the case with institutions, motivations for individuals may come from a combination of different emotional or monetary incentives.

There are many positive personal, emotional motivations for contributing content to an OER system. It is always a possibility that altruism is in play, as well as a feeling that those that have should help those that don't; both would drive a volunteer effort. The individual may derive pleasure from the process of peer production, or may enjoy feeling that they are on the cutting edge of an issue. If they are developing the resources as part of a hobby, they may see no reason not to share it with others. This is seen as a key driver of the Open Source Software movement, where many create simply for the joy of creating. Many OER projects are attempting to become communities of users and producers, and being a part, or perhaps even well respected leader, of a community can be a powerful motivation for some.

This community aspect also gives rise to what may be a strong personal disincentive for not participating in an OER project. Peer pressure within an institution, particularly if it that institution is a big player in a project, may make individuals feel that they have little choice but to participate. Even if they don't initially desire to share their material, being seen as someone who refuses to embrace the future of education is no proud status symbol for an educator. A monetary punishment may be added to this pressure if the institution begins to require contribution: instead of the old “publish or perish” mentality, it may become “make it open or perish.”

Of course, this isn't to say that all monetary incentives must be negative ones. If an institution really wants to quickly develop open content, they can pour money into the project (like the $10,000-$15,000 per course spent by MIT [3]), and some of that may go to paying those who contribute. This is almost like falling back on Mccaulay's patronage model. Enhancing your reputation in the educational community by making your educational resources available to all may be seen as résumé builder to enhance future career prospects. Of course, there will always be those that want a physical, bound book, and publishing your materials to an open community may be a way to increase quality and decrease needed editing before production of a commercial version.

James Boyle makes an interesting case when he states that, on a massively populated global network like the internet, with systems in place where individuals can add content from their own expertise, “it just does not matter why they do it.”[4] All that matters is that someone somewhere will. However, if an institution has a goal of encouraging more participation in production of content, then knowing why individuals might contribute is the first step. Either way, running or hosting an OER project takes at least some capital, even more so if those producing or publishing the content are to be paid for their contributions. The question of where that money is going to come from frames the issue of sustainability.

Modularity and Granularity[edit]

Boyle feels that it doesn't matter why; someone will eventually produce something. That's not to say there aren't ways to increase the chance of someone producing something, and an incredibly effective way to do this is to lower the barriers to entry. A way to do this, and a key part of open systems such as OER, is via modularity. Rather than requiring an individual to produce the whole product themselves, the product is broken up into separate chunks, called modules. Each module can be worked on independently, meaning the required investment of time and energy for an individual to get involved is lowered considerably when compared with producing an entire product. For educational materials, this makes an extreme amount of sense, as learners often want their learning to come in non-overwhelming chunks.

Granularity refers to the size of these modules. The smaller the chunk can be and still be a relevant contribution, the lower the barrier to entry will be. For open software, someone can contribute a single line of code. However, according to the Hewlett Foundation [5] granularity is still a challenge for the OER movement. Projects such as the MIT OCW had whole courses as the contributions, and many open textbook repositories have textbooks where one person did most of, if not all of, the work.

Sustainability[edit]

As Paul Courant [6] notes, the end user may be getting something for free (or the minimal cost of physically accessing it), but generating and making these resources available to users takes money. “The question of how the relevant infrastructures are to be paid for is important.” How to make OER projects sustainable so that they will be accessible in the future and can continue to grow has been a major focus of research on OER initiatives.

Funding Models[edit]

Downes' Models[edit]

While researching the issue of sustainability of OER projects, Stephen Downs [7] compiled a list of funding models used by those running OER programs. Each of these models gives rise to its own discussion.

  • Endowment: This model is based on generating a base fund before starting the project, investing it and using the interest generated by this base fund as an operating budget.
    • A downside to this model is that a large initial investment is required to get a modest return, but it does provide a real sense of sustainability. Unanswered by this model is where to obtain the money for the base fund.
  • Membership: This model is community based, where organizations participating in the project are required to pay dues. These dues can be a one time start-up cost, or they may be subscription based. These participating organizations then play a guiding role in the project, rather than being simply users.
    • For this model to work, the privileges of being a member organization must be powerful enough to entice participation, or many organizations will choose to be merely users.
  • Donations: This is another community based model, but rather than granting privileges to organizations, the project merely asks the whole community of users for good-will donations. If enough donations can be secured, it is possible to shift to operating on an endowment model.
    • This model requires an established user base to be successful, so it is not a practical choice for projects just starting out.
  • Conversion: The base service or product is available for free, with the intention of turning users into paying customers.
    • This model has become incredibly popular in community based internet projects. The conversion can be insidious, with basics such as help being locked behind a register, or requiring payment for proper usage. It can also be merely perk based. The perk model works especially well when there is much community interaction, so that those that don't pay are constantly reminded of how much better they could have it by the presence of those that do. However, if a user is going to pay to access or use the educational materials, are they truly getting something that is “open”? Using the definition of open as being free, it would no longer be considered open.
  • Contributor-Pay: This model requires a contributor of content to pay for the cost of maintaining that content, and the provider makes that contribution available for free. Sometimes the producer of the work is being funded by another organization. In this case, they get paid for their production, and the organization pays the contributor fee.
    • This model seems to be the exact opposite of common economic sense. Instead of being paid for someone using something they produced, they have to pay to let it be used. For most single producers of content, this would be anathema; it would take a very strong altruistic motive to do the work and then pay again. However, this model does work if the second option is taken. This does, though, just shift the sustainability question to the next group.
  • Sponsorship: This is a model every user of modern forms of entertainment is familiar with. The organization sells advertising space to other companies. These advertisements may be incredibly unavoidable, as is the case with radio, television, and most internet usage. There may also be more subtle sponsorship used. A simple “thanks to our sponsors” somewhere may suffice, or the whole project could take on a partnership with a single company.
    • It is hard to believe that there are many users who would put up with obtrusive ads if they were looking for serious, quality materials, which is where the subtle methods come in. The HathiTrust uses this model by branding things, including their own brand on the page turner and watermarks on every page that identify both the agent that did the digitizing and the library that the source material came from. This raises the question of if we really want our education to be branded, especially in the case of HathiTrust, which is meant to be a research library.
  • Institutional: This model is basically sponsorship by the project, or by the originator of the project. The institution that is providing the content provides the funding for it, as it sees the project as an important part of its whole.
    • Some may be upset with this model, as they may feel that they are just suffering a transfer of costs. A student may save money by not having to buy textbooks, but may be mighty upset to learn that some of their tuition money went to not only saving textbook money but to providing the materials for others who didn't pay for it.
  • Governmental: Very similar to the institutional model, this model is based on government funding.
    • This is a seemingly solid model, but there are some problems with it. The government must be willing to allocate enough funds to projects, and as politics plays its part, funding may suddenly dry up. There is also the possibility of some tax payers being upset at bearing more of the cost of education, even though the ultimate goal is to drive down that cost.
  • Partnerships and Exchanges: While this is not a model that can provide true sustainability (the money still has to come from somewhere), it is a very good way to lower the costs. Organizations pool resources to develop educational material, or a whole OER system, together.
    • These partnerships can be exchanges among equals who just want to lower their own costs, or they can be a symbiotic partnership where each provides something (money, technology, expertise on some subject) that the other lacks.

Wiley's Models[edit]

Downes' models focus on how the OER project will secure its funds and maintain sustainability. David Wiley [8] expands upon these models by positing new models based on how OER projects in universities have so far developed the resources that they offer. The MIT model, in which all courses are posted by paid employees with the full support of the institution, requires a high monetary investment and is unlikely to be followed by many. The USU (Utah State University) model encourages faculty members to post as part of their teaching or advising responsibilities, while some paid staff provide support. This model takes less monetary support, so is more likely to be followed. The Rice model, based on Connexions, is almost entirely volunteer based, and allows content from those outside the university. Rice provides guidance and support, but hopes that others will build the community and add content.

dScribe[edit]

One of the approaches being used to lower the money and time investment required by an institution and its faculty to develop open educational resources that is similar to the USU model previously mentioned is the University of Michigan's dScribe process. This process utilizes trained students already enrolled in an instructor's course to help faculty gather the course material, after which the students take the lead in making sure intellectual property issues are addressed. The students also handle most of the editing and publishing duties, with support of both the instructor and the school's OER staff members. Not only does this model save faculty time and lower the costs of content generation/conversion, it also gets students involved and will hopefully allow them to learn better by being more engaged with the materials.

Measurement of Cost (and Return)[edit]

From a basic business standpoint, knowing your costs is a key part of ensuring sustainability. Not only the actual financial costs, but also the opportunity cost of professor time spent producing and publishing materials (which can be lowered by using a method similar to the dScribe process). Knowing your costs is the first half of a return on investment analysis, which is what is used to justify further support for the project. [9] The second half of a return on investment analysis is the benefit gained from the project, which can be measured in terms of teaching efficiency, student learning outcomes, and institutional development. One challenge of producing a return on investment for an OER project in a concrete, measurable, and comparable way is that the benefits are often amorphous improvements that must be somehow changed into metrics. This is not a challenge unique to OER; almost any project with non-monetary outcome faces this problem.


Quality[edit]

If there is funding and/or the motivation to create open educational resources, will they be great enough to produce quality educational materials? Who decides what level of quality is acceptable, or even judges what the quality of something is? How does a user find quality? As Courant [6] says, “What is not cheap... is to figure out what is important and valuable in the stream of information that is now so easy to produce and make publicly available.” Finally, does OER change the way people define quality when they are looking for educational materials?

The Standing Definition[edit]

Just what is meant by quality educational materials? Andy Lane [10] lays out a series of questions that work as a test for the quality of materials and how they are presented:

  • Is the material academically appropriate? Does it cover the body of knowledge and meaning for the topic it is about?
  • Is the material pedagogically robust? Is it structured in a way that matches a stated pedagogical model? Does it set out learning goals? Does it have a method of assessing if the user has met those outcomes?
  • Is the way that the material is presented helpful to learners? Are they better able to achieve the learning goals because of the media chosen?

Challenges to Quality[edit]

Will the background constraints of the economic system keep this quality from being realized? Many in support of OER call upon the tragedy of the commons, where physical goods open to all were overused, and say that with information, overconsumption isn't possible. However, the tragedy of the open commons might be an overproduction of lower-quality materials because of a lack of motivation to put the time and effort into producing quality. The question is no longer “why shouldn't I use more?,” but “why should I produce more?” or “why should I produce something better?”

The problems of quality become even larger if the goal of collaboration, anyone and everyone contributing (it may even be that “the price for admission was your commitment to make your own incremental innovation part of the ecology” [4]), are contrasted with the quality tests mentioned above that seem to require an overall guiding hand to be archived. Lane [10] mentions that “For many OER the quality assurance is carried out by the originating institution since the materials are derived from mainstream teaching activities that are already subject to quality assurance processes.” If the content is coming from structured sources, then it's not anyone and everyone contributing. Current Open Course Ware has software that doesn't facilitate collaborative development of resources, and the environment is not conductive to learners engaging with each other while studying the materials. And when you do have “collaboratively developed” resources (such as The Tower and The Cloud or even this wiki), they are often more a collection of separate articles written in different styles, with different levels of understandability, and fail to refer to each other (sometimes repeating much of the same information). This is very different than a standard textbook which guides a reader through a topic. Moving towards a more textbook-like result requires that the collaboration includes much discussion between participants, which increases the commitment each must make. Producing a higher-quality product in this sense requires a decrease in the granularity of each part of the project.

Since assessing the quality of something requires making a judgment, who is going to be responsible for judging the quality of OER? With the institution have an overarching control over what is used by their students, or will the teacher have to judge what is right for their class? Will the student themselves have to make the judgment, as they will if they are self-learning? Some of the institutions producing the resources have taken it upon themselves to judge quality before allowing something to be placed on their system.

The power of the crowd can be used to judge quality by allowing quality materials to filter up from the whole collection. This is done by implementing peer rankings, based on user ratings, amount of use, or both. However, any such ranking system will have many issues to confront if it wishes to truly be relevant:

  • Are there enough users for the rankings to be relevant?
  • Have methods been taken so that people can't rig the ratings (ala link farming)?
  • If the ranking is based on how many times it has been accessed, does that really mean quality? What if it is one person visiting it every day?
  • Is the length of time spent using the material taken into account? Does length of time spent on a page actually mean that the person was using the material, or was the web browser merely sitting open while they were off doing something else?
  • What if it is a site that allows incremental or even large scale changes? Will old ratings stand for a changed resource?

A final consideration for the quality of OER is the level of sophistication required in the user of the resource. Lane [10] maintains that “ Open Course Ware in the style provided by MIT, consisting largely of educational resources without pedagogic structure or learning design” is appropriate for “other educators and graduate-level students, who are their primary targets,” but “is not as readily accessible and understandable by those lacking confidence and formal qualifications and is not ideal for self-study unless you are a skilled self-studier or independent learner.” Will it take even more effort to produce resources (and a framework?) that will be usable by undergrad and high school students? Courant [6] fears the decay of scholarly work and understanding “because it is now easy to obtain answers to questions that are “good enough,” via any number of tools that are immediately, freely, and conveniently available on the web.” He continues by saying that “it is much easier to search on the web, using Google or other search engines, than it is to do “proper” search and exploration of the scholarly literature on a subject. Thus... ““good enough” threatens to replace “good.”” It will take much effort to ensure that OER is of high enough quality to prevent his fears.

Another challenge faced by OER that ups the requirement of sophistication in the user is that there is “no requirement for metadata or provenance and no presumption that a work with a title and URL that is available today will be available with the same title and location tomorrow, much less 40 or 100 years from now.” [6] In fact, one of the resources I used for writing this (A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement [5]) suddenly seemed to have disappeared when I tried to access it, and I had to search down a new link to it. When you find something in a standard textbook or scholarly journal, you know that it is going to be in the same place whenever you or others want to find it (only “editions” throw this rule off, and that is addressed by bibliography rules). The Open Access movement is trying to address this issue by requiring that “a complete version of the work... is deposited... in at least one online repository... that seeks to enable... long-term archiving,” [11] among other things.

A Redefinition?[edit]

Almost all of the above challenges are mostly based on a definition of quality that covers the entire material. One of the things OER is trying to do is break up materials into modules, and perhaps even submodules, with smaller granularity. By allowing anyone to pull apart pieces and then reassemble and modify them as they see fit, is the definition of quality being challenged? A teacher no longer has to purchase a full textbook and get it all, they can pull chapters from different sources and combine them with their own material. A self learner no longer has to depend on a purchased book, they can read free text or slides from different sources, view videos (live action or animated, streaming live or downloaded), listen to audio (again, streaming or in the form of downloaded podcasts), or combine any of those methods. OER truly opens up the possibility of customization.

This isn't to say that granularity eliminates all questions of quality. Sophistication in the user is still required, as challenges of judging and finding material remain. Depending on the information you are accessing requires trust in the source. The ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use information make up a skill known as information literacy, and it is one critical to the use of OER (as well as most anything on the internet).

Economic Impact[edit]

An institution hosting an OER program may have to deal with questions regarding the economic impact of what they are doing. These issues will often be raised when an institution is planning to become involved in producing OER, and they may be raised by those within the institution, or by those external to it. They may also take the form of criticisms aimed at the overall OER movement.

One issue of economic impact that may be raised is that of shifting the cost. Making the educational resources open is supposed to lower the cost of education, but will it really just change who pays when? Instead of a student of a class paying to purchase materials that they will use for a specific purpose, will the costs of producing and making those resources available now be a part of tuition? For the student this may not be a big difference, but if the materials are made available for anyone to use, will those paying tuition, thinking that their money is going toward their education (or their child's), feel cheated that they are paying for something that others are getting to use for free? Conversely, it may be the students asking for the open materials through newspaper editorials, and they may feel their student experience is enhanced by them, as 69% of MIT students did in a recent survey [12]

On the flip side, others may argue that making educational materials open will negatively impact existing economic structures. There are many who earn their living in the existing market, where writers, publishers, manufacturers, and sellers of the products all earn money. Shifting to a new economic model cuts out business for many of these types of jobs. If money is going to be made, it will be by the institution, and, depending on the incentive and sustainability options the project utilizes, perhaps the writers and student assistants. For the writers and student assistants to have the opportunity to make money, though, they must already be within the institution.

Critics that take this view will be extra vocal, and be given more credence, in times of economic uncertainty. When unemployment and job loss are big news items, an institution may have to face claims that it is contributing to the death of an industry. A lengthy editorial from the owner of a bookstore very near the University of Michigan that appeared in the Ann Arbor Chronicle on February 17th, 2009 [13] shows the impact a loss of textbook sales can have on a business. While the author of that editorial blames websites that sell textbooks, will professors using open textbooks cause local bookstores, already struggling, to close up for good? There is a whole other debate on whether this is a bad thing or not, but when the economic news is already in the dumps, this possible impact of implementing an OER project will surely be brought up.

Carrying the economic impact criticism to the extreme may lead critics to say that schools are putting themselves out of business by making their educational resources available to anyone for free. MIT OpenCourseWare tackles these criticisms head on by clearly stating on their site [3] that using the materials does not mean one has received an MIT education, that a degree cannot be earned by using the materials, that faculty access is not possible through the materials, and that not everything within a class is in the materials. They are clearly saying that certification from a high-caliber school is still very valuable. However, critics may still have a valid point in saying that OER will lower the need for tenured professors if freely available resources and an adjunct faculty member or graduate student instructor can get the job done.

When faced with these criticisms, it is important to keep in mind, as well as be able to respond with, the values created by an OER system (which are some of the motivations for institutions mentioned above). Students have more opportunities to find learning material that fits their learning style, and OER systems allow the creation of new social learning opportunities. Faculty productivity will be increased if they don't have to spend as much time creating learning materials, and by having the material they created available online they gain exposure. Alumni will have easy access to materials they used, allowing quick memory refreshing to be more feasible, as well as increasing their feeling of connection with the institution. Prospective students can preview the material they may use in class, which will both assist in their selection of school and increase their sense of preparedness for starting school. These are four groups that an institution should always be very interested in serving better, and hosting or participating in an OER program gives them just that chance.

Conclusion[edit]

Once an institution is itself motivated to become involved in an OER program, it should be sure that can motivate individuals to contribute content, and that it will be able to keep the system going. It should also have plans in place to help produce, and help users find, quality content. Accusations that implementing an OER system will have a negative impact on the economy may arise; preparations to respond to them with the values derived from OER should be made. If these challenges can be successfully overcome, an institution can contribute toward the ultimate goal of opening up education to make the world a better place.

Notes[edit]

  1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights [1]
  2. Mccaulay, Thomas B. A Speech Delivered in the House of Commons (Feb. 5, 1841), in VIII THE LIFE AND WORKS OF LORD MACAULAY 201. 1897. London, Longmans, Green, and Co. Referenced in Boyle (See below)
  3. a b About OCW. MIT. [2]
  4. a b Boyle, James. The Second Enclosure Movement And The Construction Of The Public Domain. 2003. 66 Law & Contemp. Probs. [3]
  5. a b Atkins, Daniel E. et al. A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities. 2007 [4]
  6. a b c d Courant, Paul. Scholarship: The Wave of the Future in the Digital Age. 2008. Educause. [5]
  7. Downes, Stephen. Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources, January 2006 [6]
  8. Wiley, David. On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education, 2007 [7]
  9. 2009 Health OER Design Phase Proposal to Hewlett Foundation Education Program [8]
  10. a b c Lane, Andy. Who Puts the Education into Open Educational Content?. 2008. Educause. [9]
  11. Definition of Open Access. Public Library of Science. [10]
  12. Evaluation of OpenCourseWare. MIT. [11]
  13. Pohrt, Karl. Open Letter from a Distressed Bookseller. 2009. Ann Arbor Chronicle. [12]