We’re excited about the upcoming #OER18 Conference!
Seems like they might be excited about us too, because they asked our Director, Nick Baker to contribute to a great blog post series they have leading up to the Conference.
— #OER18 (@OERConf) March 7, 2018
By Nick Baker, University of Windsor, Canada.
While open educational practices are slowly becoming an embedded part of the higher education landscape globally, there is still a long way to go before we can consider them as mainstream in Canada, or North America in general. Around the world, the open movement is growing, driven by the many dedicated individuals who truly, madly, deeply believe in the benefits of open access to knowledge and education. Yet, the majority of our colleagues (and senior administrators) still seem to have very little awareness of the potential, or even existence of, open educational resources. Those who are still carry mistrust, convinced that free = poor quality. What, one wonders, might it take to get their collective attention, or to convince them open can mean high quality?
Anyone reflecting on the last two decades of open education activities in North America might remember that it is 20 years since David Wiley came up with the idea of the Open Content Licence – a first step towards open licencing of educational resources. Then there was that little project known as the MIT OpenCourseware Initiative, which has had 200 million visitors since 2001 engaging with content from 2,400 MIT courses made freely available to the global community (at least, those with a solid enough internet connection to access the resources). Or what about the Merlot OER repository, which started 20 years ago and has over 80,000 items in its database of open resources? And who could forget the original cMOOC that was a product of George Seimens and Stephen Downes’ experiment with connectivist teaching and learning approaches, which predated the MOOC hysteria by several years (of course, the term MOOC was even coined by a Canadian – Dave Cormier). More recently, BCcampus’ and eCampus Ontario’s respective open textbook repositories and resources to encourage adoption, adaptation, and creation of open educational resources have emerged as important players on the open practice landscape in Canada and beyond. These and other initiatives have led to the formation of the Canada OER working group, bringing together various provincial open education initiatives with the aim of leveraging their work to save students money.
There is a lot of good stuff happening in open educational practice in Canada and the US, but until fairly recently, it didn’t seem to have the same profile locally as elsewhere in the world. The conversation about open educational practices in Canada and the US is becoming louder and more insistent, and it is being driven by many voices outside of academia, as well as a band of champions within. How do we help to facilitate and amplify those voices so that real change can happen? We are making some headway in driving OERs into the mainstream, but it has been a long, slow, bumpy road so far. This got me thinking about why that might be, and what could be done to accelerate the trend.
Kortemeyer argued that OERs had failed to make significant impact on universities in their first decade of existence. He suggests four key hurdles to adoption; 1. Discoverability, 2. Quality control and lack of enhancement based on feedback, 3. The Last Mile – difficulty of packaging disparate OERs into a coherent group of learning resources, and 4. Acquisition – the contribution of open materials to the community is still fairly uncommon among faculty and they also have concerns about tracking impact of their resources. Belikov and Bodily (2016) found the top three barriers to adoption to be a need for more information, lack of discoverability, and confusing OERs with other digital resources. Conversely, they noted the greatest incentives to adoption included saving students money, pedagogical benefits, and institutional support for and recognition of the adoption.
Globally, higher education institutions remain places where some of the most elite brains of the world tend to lock themselves away to think deeply about and explore the world’s greatest challenges, which is what we have traditionally set them up to do. This tends to be a very isolated and individualistic profession in many disciplines, but the public (and as a result, the government) in Canada are now more than ever demanding a window into that world, wondering what they get for the investment of public funds into universities. What differs a lot from higher education system to system is the culture of openness, sharing, and the level of focus on the public good and responsibility of these institutions. In short, where there is a culture of sharing and accountability for public investment in our institutions, it seems that open education is less at odds with the dominant culture, and therefore more likely to thrive. But if that doesn’t exist, what can drive the necessary changes?
Two trends seem to be making a difference in bringing us closer to a state where universities, and the academics who inhabit them, are more open to freely sharing the knowledge with the world that they collectively generate. The first is the pressure from students. Recently, students in Canada and the US, as well as in other parts of the world, have begun to pressure their institutions and individual teachers to consider the rapidly growing cost of learning resources, in particular textbooks, in the design of their courses. At my own institution, as well as many others across the country, policies and guidelines are beginning to appear that urge faculty to adopt an open-first approach when assigning learning resources, primarily as a cost-containment measure for students. The #TextbookBroke movement has successfully leveraged social media and data about the rapid increases of higher education costs to drive a discussion about accessibility and equity. Proponents also point to viable alternatives to both traditional higher learning and the resources that underlie it to challenge the value of traditional universities. This discussion places OERs and open practice front and centre in the debate over the cost of higher education and the broader societal issue of who these costs exclude or include in access to higher education. The collective voices of student OER advocates have begun to be heard by their public representatives, with open education becoming a hot topic at various government levels. From the government perspective, they want students to graduate, and there is solid evidence that reducing cost load by using OERs impacts graduation rates, so from that view, it is a no-brainer.
This level of interest from government is the second driver of significant change towards increasing open practices in higher education, and moving them from a cottage industry to the mainstream. Governments across Canada and the US have started to take up the challenge to drive change in their higher education sectors to address not only costs to learners, but also access, equity, efficiency, and quality of outcomes for the public investment. This has manifested itself in many ways, but increasingly it has been through strong legislative intervention. Recent activity at the state level in the US, including in California and Hawai’i (among others), has seen the introduction of legislation that would require the use of Open Educational Resources in state funded institutions.
In Canada, provincial governments have responsibility for higher education, and have made less direct legislative interventions, instead opting for a combination of policies and incentives to drive change (although the federal government has also pushed universities towards openness by implementing a requirement through the research granting councils that makes all publicly funded research results publicly available, bringing Canada in line with many other western nations, and making a strong statement about openness). In many ways, our experience in Canada is similar to Joe Wilson’s experience in Scotland, where there have been a number of active innovators across Canada, but the vast majority of people have been waiting for some policy or legislative intervention to jump on board the bus. And there are certainly those who waited for the policy bus to arrive just so they could refuse to get on it! In Ontario, where I am based, the development of eCampus Ontario has seen millions of dollars of competitive funding injected into the system over the last five years and the development of hundreds of OERs tailored to the Ontario context. It has also led to the creation of a provincial open textbook and OER repository. The risk the government took in investing in what was considered by most as a fringe idea in a sector that has traditionally had almost complete autonomy from government intervention is
starting to pay off. It was also risky because what the government was trying to incentivise us to do was to become more open, sharing, and collaborative as a sector, when universities traditionally didn’t really think of themselves as part of a sector, but rather as loose collections of individuals sharing a payroll system. Universities, and the individuals that make them up in Canada have been set up and incentivised to compete, which is is counter to open culture and a barrier to greater adoption.
But there has been a palpable shift in the level of the conversation around open practices and OERs, and learning in higher education in my province. The large investment and competitive funding has increased the profile of teaching activities, and the focus on open has made those activities more available to the sector as a whole. Some would say cleverly, there has also been a focus on research and scholarship around openness that helps to legitimise these ideas in the academic community.
The visibility of OERs and open educational practices is increasing, and while there is a long way to go, I can’t help but be optimistic that the small ripples a few dedicated people started by throwing stones into the lake of higher education two decades ago are now becoming a larger wave that has enough room on it for us all to go surfing. As these waves spread out and grow, the importance of communities such as the one underlying the #OER18 conference also grows. Like David Wiley in his guest post, these reflections are my own personal observations and I make no claim to them being objective! Others will have a different experience to mine and view the developments over the last few years in very different ways. I live and work in the open space. Open practitioners are my friends, colleagues, and community. I have watched that community grow, both in Canada and globally. My hope is that the open community can be truly open to all, make space for and encourage all comers, be inclusive, embrace that diversity, and find ways to realise the potential of collaboration through the global community of open practitioners. I hope to see the ripples become real waves that bring disruption and renewal to higher education.