Over the last 15 weeks I have been introduced to the history of open education – from its humble beginnings, to some bumps along the way, and where it can take us in the future (if we let it). The more I learned, the more I was forced to reflect on my own beliefs and willingness to truly be open. My most important take-away is that free ≠ open. Saving students money is great; saving them money while making the learning experience more open and adaptable is better. As somebody who aspires to be a professor for the purpose of positively influencing students, I have seen that in order to have the greatest effect it will take effort that may push me outside of my comfort zone. But isn’t that how we progress, personally and professionally?
One of the first assumptions in economics is that people behave rationally. The principle of rationality means we take all available information and make decisions that aim to maximize our best interest. I have always realized that is a pretty bold assumption because interacting with anybody for at least 5 minutes will disprove it rather quickly. If we were truly rational, how would our decisions change? One area I think that would be greatly affected is our personal educational pursuits and our view on education in general.
We have to make decisions everyday due to the scarce resources that exist in our lives – the most important of which is time. The opportunity cost of setting that time aside for education means we are missing out on other potential activities like working. As a third year grad student, I sometimes question if the pursuit of higher education is worth it. Looking at my student debt waiting to be paid off and the mounting piles of schoolwork that come with ever-increasing amounts of stress, I have my doubts. But then I remember that the benefits of my education go beyond the grades I get, the degrees I earn, and even the increase in potential earnings in my future career.
People with higher levels of education tend to have better problem-solving skills and tools to make well-informed life decisions. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that education is a predictor of health in the U.S. and many other countries. Additional studies found that education affects a nation’s economic growth, unemployment rates, and overall cognitive functioning of pupils.
Now back to the assumption that people are rational and seek to maximize our best interest. If this is true, let us allocate our time towards an investment with a very real return. As parents, invest in the time it takes to help your children and instill in them the importance of education. As teachers, invest in truly helping your students. As policy makers, invest financially in public education. And as individuals, invest in yourselves and seek an education. Don’t fall victim to the idea that it isn’t worth it and prioritize less worthwhile activities.
PAYING FOR EDUCATION
Don’t get me wrong, just because I believe education is “worth it” doesn’t mean I am blind to the financial barriers students must overcome to obtain it. The value of an education goes beyond the monetary cost, but that monetary cost is still very real and very daunting. It is comprised of tuition, rent, groceries, transportation, textbooks, healthcare costs, and all of the other expenses (both expected and unexpected) that we face in our day-to-day. Let me focus on one for now: textbook costs.
During my undergraduate career I paid exactly $0 for required textbooks. I was fortunate enough to have a scholarship that covered the cost of materials for my courses. As a student-athlete, I did not encounter many issues that most college students face. For example, I never had to worry about not getting into a class because we had priority registration. Navigating the bookstore shelves was left to the bookstore employees who printed our schedules, found the required texts, boxed them up, and then handed them out to us at the start of the semester. I share these experiences not to boast but to explain how sheltered my undergraduate experience was.
Fast forward to the start of grad school four months later when I had to take out student loans, scour the internet for the cheapest way to buy or rent my required texts, and struggle with being unable to find a job to finance my education. No scholarships were available for us lowly master’s students, those were reserved for the doctoral students. If the stress of classes wasn’t enough, try adding on the stress of meeting your basic needs while not racking up insanely large amounts of debt. All of a sudden I realized just how expensive and stressful an education can be.
While many costs such as tuition and room & board are beyond the control of students and professors, one area where professors can cut costs is textbooks. A 2012 study of roughly 18,500 students found that the cost of required textbooks caused students to frequently or occasionally:
- not register for a specific course (31.9%)
- withdraw from a course (9.8%)
- take fewer courses (34.7%)
- earn a poor grade because they could not afford to buy the textbook (18.2%)
In an attempt to reduce their costs, some students opted to forego purchasing the required text at all. This can lead to compromised performance in the course. Others dropped or withdrew from a course due to the high cost of the textbook.
For students who may have purchased textbooks using money from student loans, my fear is that many do not understand the principle of interest. Student loan money is not free money; it comes with a price that compounds faster than most students may realize. That $150 textbook can end up being closer to $180-$190 after paying interest. This raises the cost of an education in a way that is harder to factor in when weighing options.
Cost is a major barrier to education. I think this barrier can be seen in three ways: never starting to pursue an education, dropping out prematurely, or putting in the time and effort yet being so worried about the financial toll it has on you now and in the future that you cannot take full advantage of the education you are working so hard to obtain. As a second-year doctoral student, I am finding the latter to be my current reality. Forget presenting, publishing, networking, and all of my other grad student duties; the most intimidating part of my education is finding a way to afford it.
HOW OER HELP
One way to help students with the cost of college is through the use of open educational resources (OER). The Hewlett Foundation defines OER as:
teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge (emphasis added).
Because they are available at no cost, OER save students money. There are only so many ways to rephrase that same sentiment. You can read article after article or blog post after blog post, analyzing how researchers came to their conclusion and scrutinizing the differences in the dollar amounts. At the end of the day, the most important point is that OER save students money. But what about the issue of quality? Will students learn just as much if it’s not a professionally published textbook written by a professor? In short, the answer is yes.
A 2015 study conducted at UC Davis found that students who used ChemWiki, an alternative to a conventional textbook, showed no significant differences in individual learning gains from those students who used the traditional chemistry textbook. These results were calculated using scores from pre-tests administered at the beginning of the semester and final exam scores. While this is only one study, there are other studies that show similar results. (Check out this review from the Open Education Group that summarizes articles published about OER).
Hearing about a few studies that have found this to be true might not quell the worries of “you get what you pay for”. In many people’s minds, free, or even cheap, might equate to lower quality. I know this feeling from a bad haircut experience I had as a pre-teen.
When I was in eighth grade, for some reason I don’t remember now, I needed a haircut and my mom took me to a Fantastic Sam’s which we thought would work well because they take walk-ins and it would be a reasonably priced haircut. This was my first time not going to a professional salon so I was a little nervous. I asked for a trim and sat down in the chair. Forty-five minutes later I got in the car and burst into tears. My hair was uneven, awful, and made me look stupid – I think those were my exact feelings as a 12-year-old. I vowed to never get a “cheap” haircut again. It wasn’t worth it to me to save a few bucks and have a terrible haircut. I felt like I got what I paid for.
Many times in life, it’s easy to feel this way with services we choose or products we purchase. We buy something cheap and when it breaks or doesn’t go according to plan, we blame ourselves for investing in a low quality product in the first place. I understand why people feel like they get what they pay for. But when it comes to open educational resources, that doesn’t have to be the case.
I don’t get my hair cut at fancy salons anymore. I found a place that is actually cheaper than Fantastic Sam’s and better than any salon I’ve been to previously. It took me and my mom a few bad haircuts along the way to find it, but it all worked out. So if you are a professor on a quest to find the right OER for your course, know that there might be some bumps along the way. But with some effort on your part and recommendations from those around you, you can be one step closer to finding or creating an open resource that fits your course. It’s one of the few times in life you can actually get more than what you pay for.
In one study, 90% of students considered the open textbooks they used to be the same quality or better than traditional textbooks. I know what you’re thinking But what about the 10% who don’t think it’s as good as or better? That is a very valid concern. Is saving a few hundred bucks worth sacrificing the quality of education? (i.e. is the cheap haircut worth it?) Let’s go back to that UC Davis study that found students who used an open chemistry textbook did just as well as students who used the traditional textbook.
So if professors can save students money without sacrificing the quality of their education, why don’t more professors adopt OER? One issue is awareness. Many administrators and faculty members do not know that OER exist or have a misunderstanding of what OER encompass. Prior to starting in the Instructional Psychology & Technology (IPT) department at BYU, I had never heard the phrase “open educational resources.” Aside from awareness, it’s a big change for faculty members. How can you ensure the quality of the books? How do you even decide which open textbook or open resource to use? Well, thankfully there are peer-reviewed, open textbooks available for professors as a good starting point. And about making the decision, faculty members already have to choose a textbook in the first place. It’s a time investment they make weighing different textbook options from publishers, so they might as well throw some OER in the mix.
FREE BUT NOT OPEN
Another benefit of OER is that they are open. Going back to the Hewlett Foundation definition included above, the two important parts I chose to emphasize are that these open resources are free AND can be re-purposed by others due to the intellectual property license under which they are released. Considering that I just talked about OER for their potential to save students money, it would be easy to stop at the fact that they are free. Even in my own mind I tend to stop at the idea that OER are a cause worth promoting because they relieve the financial burden students face (aka they are free). But stopping at this simple fact would be selling OER very short of their full potential. A truly open resource comes with the “5R” permissions: retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute. Without going into too much detail about each of the 5Rs (which I’m not sure I can sufficiently do at this point in time anyway as I am still learning myself), I prefer to focus on why this understanding of the word “open” is so essential.
What happens with resources when we stop our definition at the idea of being free (no cost) can be compared to a scene from the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (included above). An old man whose prison bars break open, jumps out and happily exclaims “I’m free!” Immediately after he makes this exclamation, he trips and falls, quite unfortunately, directly into the stocks. He got past one barrier just to find himself restricted by another. Even if OER can be provided to students for no cost, users are not able to revise the materials to fit their course needs or remix, redistribute, reuse, or retain. The resources may be free from imposing financial burdens but they are not free to be changed; professors are still bound by copyright laws.
Prior to learning more about the open movement, Creative Commons licenses, and the like, I had never questioned the idea of copyright law. It made sense to me – people come up with an idea or concept, execute it, and should earn the right to profit from it. Copyright laws spur innovation because there is an incentive for people to invent, create, put forth an effort knowing there is an exclusive benefit waiting for them at the end of it all. If other people steal the idea for their own personal gain, that’s unfair. But the real question should focus less on the topic of what is fair (not that I’m implying fairness is not important) and more on the topic of can the idea really even be stolen?
Throughout the course of this semester, David Wiley has made it clear that ideas cannot be stolen. When we talk about private goods we are referring to goods that are both rivalrous and excludable. In other words, my consumption of a candy bar prevents somebody else from consuming it as well. Once I eat it, it’s gone. That’s it.
But can this happen with an idea? If I have an idea and somebody else uses it, does that mean I no longer have that idea? No, not at all. I still have it in my brain as much as they have it in theirs. Thomas Jefferson (as quoted by James Boyle) said:
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
If this is true, why are we so protective of the ideas we deem as ours? What if we let our idea be the spark to inspire others? One idea could have such a far reaching impact if we let it.
Imagine a course where the textbook and other course materials are tailored to the professor’s lectures, homework assignments, tests, etc; a course where everything fits and flows together. This can be done with OER and the permissions they allow. With other materials, professors are limited by the traditional copyright laws we are familiar with. Copyright laws that are “all rights reserved.” Free may relieve the financial burden students face, but it does nothing to relieve the restriction on creative freedom.
So maybe we should rethink the way we think of free. In our course, David referenced GNU and their explanation of what they mean by “free software.” As a lover of language, I found the way they explain “free” particularly insightful:
“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software,” borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis (emphasis in original).
WE AREN’T THE ONLY ONES WORKING ON OPEN
Tying OER in with free and open source software is very fitting because it is where the open content movement really began. I was surprised to learn that the idea of open has a history that spans more than 20 years. Eric Raymond wrote “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” in 1997 (referring to events that had taken place as early as 1993) and the first version of the Debian Free Software Guidelines was published that same year. To think open source software (referred to free software prior to 1998) was already an idea and movement at that time makes me realize just how long this has been a concern for others. Open has been a topic of discussion since I was in elementary school.
Knowing that there really are others who are working on open, and working on it for so long, feels like there are pioneers we can follow. Without ever having to interact with them directly, we are able to follow in their footsteps to a certain extent. While the open source, open access, open data, and open educational resources movements are not exactly the same, we are able to learn from each other.
Progress can be seen in how far open education has come in the last 18 years – if open education were a person, it would be a legal adult!
When I started college, I was six weeks shy of turning 18 years old. It wouldn’t have made that big of a difference except for the fact that all student-athletes were required to sign certain waivers and medical forms before training with the University-sponsored team. Thanks to those few weeks that had yet to pass, I had to fax all of the forms to my parents because I was still considered a minor. What, besides my age, would change in those subsequent weeks that would make me so much more capable of signing my own forms and being my own person? Honestly, not much. Who I was as a person, adult or minor, was shaped by the years and experiences leading up to my 18th birthday. The values my parents instilled in me throughout my lifetime and the influence of my family, friends, teachers, coaches, etc. helped mold me into a (somewhat) responsible “adult” when that day came.
Some of my classmates have referred to the ideas that we have as our babies. When they first come to us we have so many hopes and dreams for them. It takes a lot of courage to send them out into the world so they can be nurtured, shaped, and molded by the influence of others. For as much as we try to protect them or want to keep them to ourselves, we know that is ultimately not in their best interest or ours. And hopefully, like children, they develop in a way that takes the best parts from their parents, never forgetting their roots, while incorporating the other good things they learn along the way.
As open education hits its 18 year mark, it’s interesting to see where it started and what it has become in those passing years. From its early beginnings with open content licenses, differentiated only by the letters A and B, to the multiple Creative Commons licenses that exist today, the idea that was once somebody’s baby is becoming a fully functional, well-developed adult (at least as much as any of us really ever become that).
For as well as they can stand on their own, open educational resources have much greater potential. They are at a point where they can be a key ingredient in a larger educational recipe.
Imagine you are given a basket of perfectly ripe, delicious apples (and if you don’t like apples, imagine that you like them). The giver of these apples tells you that you can do whatever you would like with them…eat them as they are, cut them up into slices, mix them with other fruits to make a fruit salad, dice them up and add your own touch (cinnamon is my personal favorite), or anything else you see fit. You do this for a while and are quite pleased with the apples and, because you are a person who likes to share, so are your friends with whom you share the apples.
But it gets to a point that you realize you want to do more with the apples, only you don’t know how. Then a friend shares a recipe for a scrumptious apple pie with you. He walks you through the recipe, helps you find the necessary ingredients, shares some tips he’s learned from making the apple pie multiple times, and then encourages you to try making the pie yourself. It will take work and maybe some fumbling along the way (especially if you aren’t a great baker), but with this recipe in hand, you feel confident to try. And so you make your first apple pie.
Let’s view the apples as open educational resources, one ingredient that has potential to become an apple pie if you add in some effort and a few extra ingredients. If you eat them as they are, they are still delicious and that’s great. But with a recipe and some help from a friend (maybe a colleague who has already implemented open pedagogy in their own classroom), they can become something even greater.
Open pedagogy is what happens when an educator takes advantage of all the affordances that come with open: the permission to retain, reuse, remix, revise, and redistribute. While using OER is a great start, the potential goes beyond that. David uses the example of an airplane that is being driven on a road instead of flown. Sure, it has all the necessary functionality to be driven, but is that what an airplane was meant to do?
Open pedagogy can be beneficial in all classes because it is about tailoring the course to the needs of the students, which means it is adaptable. There is no one-size-fits-all that means a professor has to take it as is or leave it. If you were to Google “apple pie recipe” there are 4,590,000 results (as of 9:30am today). Many recipes have similarities but tweak the amount of ingredients, heat in the oven, time to bake, etc. However, some educators may choose to eat their apples as apples because they don’t want to put in the effort to bake a pie or, worse, they doubt their abilities as a baker and are discouraged before they even begin.
Through all the changes that have occurred, and will continue to develop over the coming years, let us not forget the roots of open education. Like Charles Vest said in his 2001 announcement of MIT Open Course Ware, the emphasis should be on one thing – the enhancement of learning. No matter how far from home it may travel or how many paths it takes along the way, open education can always find itself again in this principle. Open content, open educational resources, open textbooks, OER degrees, open pedagogy…they are about transforming teaching and learning.