Step One: What Are OER, Why Are They Important, and What are the Barriers to Adoption?

What Are OER, Why Are They Important, and What are the Barriers to Adoption?

What are OER?

Open Education Resources (OER) can be any type of educational material: their scale varies from something as small as a class handout or image to something as large as a textbook or online course. While traditional course resources come with restrictive copyright laws, OER use open copyright licenses like Creative Commons. Depending on the creator’s desires, these licenses allow for different degrees of openness, and may restrict or preclude users from engaging in one or more of the 5Rs.
5R: Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute, Retain

According to David Wiley’s definition of openness, OER are “licensed in a manner that provides users with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities:

  1. Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)”

Why are OER important? Cost Savings.

For students already struggling to afford rising tuition and housing costs, the additional expense of textbooks can be a hurdle to accessing higher education. In a study conducted by Florida Virtual Campus in 2012, 65% of respondents indicated that they did not purchase textbooks at one point in their schooling due to cost. The same survey also indicated that 35% of students reduced their semesterly course load due to textbook cost and that 23% of students regularly forego purchasing textbooks due to cost alone. According to a Consumer Study conducted by NBC in 2015, from January 1977 to June 2015 textbook prices within the United States have risen 1,041%; this amount has risen over three times the rate of U.S. inflation.

While there are many short-term measures that students can use to save money on textbooks, such as buying or borrowing used materials, rental programs, or using e-textbooks and library reserves, none of these options are as innovative as OER. Open educational resources, like open textbooks, can decrease the cost of education because they are either free or low cost. Lower costs will result in students being less dependent on student loans and may even result in higher program completion rates. Greater open textbook adoption will therefore result in a more affordable, more accessible post-secondary education.

Because their license allows OER to be retained and reused, OER can also be accessed repeatedly throughout one’s degree, unlike online textbooks (or e-books) and course materials that require expensive access codes that expire when a course is finished. OER can therefore be used to enhance future projects or assignments or serve as supplementary reading later in one’s degree or post-graduation, promoting low-cost, lifelong learning that is not confined to the span of a course.

OER cost savings in action:

Why are OER important? Pedagogical Benefits.

The many cost saving benefits of OER are matched by the equally important pedagogical benefits of open education.

One of the main teaching benefits is that, since open materials are fully revisable and remixable, they can be customized to fit the way an instructor wants to teach a course. When using static traditional resources that cannot be easily edited or combined due to copyright restrictions, instructors may be forced to teach their courses in a way that conforms to available resources, rather than teach the course in their ideal way. Using OER allows the freedom to revise material by removing irrelevant content or adding one’s own content, as well as the flexibility to combine parts of resources together, thereby ensuring materials are contextualized to a specific course.

Because anyone, including students, can be involved in the creation, revision, and distribution of OER, instructors can also use these resources to engage in “open pedagogy,” assignments that leverage OER to create more meaningful learning experiences. Traditionally, students work hard on assignments that will be handed in to their instructor, graded, and then never seen again. Instead, instructors might, for example, ask students to edit OER for redistribution, or have students openly license their own work for use by future students, thereby allowing their work to be shared with a more meaningful audience. This positions students as active participants in scholarly knowledge-sharing.

Open pedagogy in action:

Why are OER important? Knowledge Creation and Dissemination.

OER also provide benefits to members of communities beyond college and university campuses, allowing for knowledge creation and sharing outside the bounds of the traditional class and campus settings. It can be difficult for those outside of scholarly communities to access and participate in learning materials or research, and the creation of openly licensed research and teaching materials helps break down such barriers. This allows broader access to information and research, and broader participation in scholarship, helping universities to spread their core missions to society as a whole.

Open knowledge in action:

  • A UBC video game law course invited members of the outside community to join in course discussions through an open course website
  • Open data sets from governments, universities, businesses, and other organizations allow anyone to access and analyze information traditionally restricted to professional researchers

What are the Main Barriers to Adopting OER?

Research has shown there are many barriers to faculty and instructors adopting open educational resources. These include a mixture of true barriers and barriers caused by faculty perceptions of OER and open pedagogy. Students should keep the following list of barriers in mind when starting their own advocacy for OER; suggestions in Steps Two and Three of this toolkit attempt to address them.

  • Not available or difficult to find. Faculty who are new to OER perceive knowing where to find relevant course materials, as well as the time involved in finding them, as barriers to adoption. It is thus important that institutions provide staff and library support for the adoption process, as well as incentives for faculty to spend extra time adopting OER.
  • Perception of quality. Faculty are used to using traditionally published resources, and may be hesitant to adopt OER when they don’t know if they can trust their quality. However, those who have used OER often report their quality as equal to or better than traditional resources. The pedagogical benefits that come with the flexibility of OER should be emphasized in messaging to faculty, as these can contribute to improved perception.
  • Traditional textbook package. Traditional textbooks often come with not just a book, but also with ancillary resources like online homework platforms or banks of exam questions. Faculty will be more likely to adopt OER if, in doing so, they can adopt both a textbook and a package of related materials.
  • Institutional culture. Faculty may be reluctant to adopt OER if they perceive that they are alone in doing so, or that they are acting against the culture of their institution. Student advocacy should target not just faculty, but also university administrations who set strategic priorities and make decisions about what initiatives to fund. Showing broad support from the student body can also help to shift institutional culture.
  • Not an individual decision. Often, the choice of which textbook to use in large courses is made by departments, not individual faculty members. This makes it more difficult for faculty to choose to adopt OER, because of competing interests and values of instructors. Working with faculty champions to speak to those instructors who may be reluctant to adopt OER can be successful to ensure widespread support. This can be effective in leveraging the support of instructors who are willing to do the work behind adoption.

For a more in-depth look at these issues:

  • this blog post summarizes barriers from a faculty member’s perspective, and
  • this research report from BCcampus studies many of these barriers, and includes links to many similar studies describing these barriers in detail.