As we explore open educational resources (OER) during the year of open, we ask “what is next for OER and who will lead the next stage of development?” Many are already starting to ask questions about the quality of OER resources, the sustainability of OER materials and processes and the development of communities associated with OER, such as the community which sustains the World Map of OER. Others are embracing OER and related open products and services and challenging their colleges and universities to embrace “open source” as a principle in their work in online learning and student support. Now is the time to reflect on where we are and where we are going.
The Story So Far
The OER movement has been with us for a considerable time – almost twenty years. There are now substantial collections of such resources available, such as those catalogued by the Commonwealth of Learning, OER Commons, Merlot II, iTunes University, and OERu. Whether you are looking for materials, whole courses, simulations or animations, there is a growing possibility you will find it.
The idea behind these resources is developers openly shared the resources so others may freely, with acknowledgement, use them. The expectation is that a full course or OER resource will be adapted, given the different context in which the user intends to use it, and then “shared back” with the global community. OERs are shared, re-used and re-shared in an endless cycle of use (you can read more about OERs here). Building this collaborative, sharing and co-operative culture for resources is motivated by a desire to improve learning, quality and performance and to support the work of faculty.
No one is quite sure just how many OERs are available for use. One estimate is there are over 1 billion items ranging from textbooks through to simulations to lesson plans available for use. There are searchable catalogues of available resources (for example, here and here). The challenge is not so much to produce more OER (though more will always be needed), but to use and leverage what already exists.
Also emerging are open practices – protocols and rubrics for policies, procedures and institutional practices. These are growing quickly with respect to both academic services (IT supports, instructional design and assessment) as well as social and service supports (career advice, student advising, recruitment and retention). They also include approaches to flexible degrees and diplomas – “how to” guides for competency-based credentials.
This move to embrace open practices began some time ago – around 2011 (see Beyond OER – Shifting Focus to Open Education Practices, which outlines the ideas behind these developments). It reflects deep concerns about the commercial exploitation and growing costs of higher education and the need to develop much more open approaches to research, publications, course materials, textbooks and other resources. Despite these developments – a growing number of textbooks, course materials, simulations and practices – adoption levels for OER approaches in North America are low. Babson’s 2-15-16 survey of the use of OER in US higher education found:
- Just 25% of faculty are aware of OER; and
- Just over 5% of courses offered across higher education in the US use open textbooks.
There is plenty of room for growth and development in the use of OER and open practices. Indeed, balancing new development with a desire to increase the utilization of existing resources is a key challenge for those leading the OER “movement”.
Three Future Developments for Open Practices and OER
We can see three particular developments to shape the future of OER.
The next development will focus on model building – developing replicable, scalable models for institutions and faculty members to adopt. For example, sharing the framework and procedures used for work-based learning degrees, sharing protocols used for the creation of artificial intelligence driven student support services, offering models and frameworks for the development of AI driven anywhere/anytime assessment, and sharing the model of the flexible degree program offered by several universities in the US.
These models go further than open educational practices, which are usually focused on components of systems or parts of an innovation. Models are wholesale system transformations, producing significantly improved outcomes and higher levels of student engagement while lowering costs or securing significant efficiencies. Replicable, transferable models which can be adopted wholesale by another jurisdiction, institution or team are highly attractive propositions.
To make this clear, let us look at example. The Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) offers modular-based, stackable courses as part of its online offering. Students can sign up for a module at anytime (365 days a year), but have a fixed completion date. Students have access to learning materials, academic support services and a helpdesk. Modules count towards a “normal” 3 credit, transferable course – students accumulate partial credit (.25, .5) towards the 3 credits needed.
A replicable model of this work would enable a college in Kenya or Canada to adopt and adapt this work without having to “second guess” just what was involved. There are many insights, “dos and don’ts”, which KCTCS would share through the development of a resource which would enable such replication.
Several large organizations are pursuing this thinking, including international development organizations, professional bodies and networks of institutions. They are offering replicable descriptions, protocols and rubrics and the supporting evidence of effectiveness and efficiency so others can adopt the innovation and adapt them for their own context and use. Most innovation in the world looks like this – “adopt-adapt”. It requires systematic description, analysis and evaluation resources for all components of the model together with the conditions under which these components function.
For example, Lifelong Learning for Farmers – a program which operates in India, Africa and the Caribbean, and is widely regarded as very successful learning program – uses cellular telephones, community-research partnerships, co-operatives and public-private partnerships to transform farming in emerging economies from subsistence to profitable, sustainable farming. With substantial monitoring and evaluation reports, other jurisdictions could replicate this work without having to engage the program originators to do so. We can expect to see more of these developments, especially with respect to models of flexible learning and competency-based learning for skills.
In technical and vocational education, the widespread use of competency frameworks and assessment rubrics permits both formal and informal systems to develop quickly while at the same time enabling learner mobility. The model for competency-based degrees, developed by the University of Michigan and others, was replicated by a great many other institutions. The growing adoption of credit-carrying MOOCs in higher education provides another example.
In each of these cases, it is not just modest innovation in practices – new ways of using the adaptive learning engines within an LMS, new modes of assessment using machine intelligence – but wholesale, system innovations that are being openly sourced. This enables the more rapid expansion of access to higher education and the more efficient use of experiences in one place to support development in another.
Adopting and Adapting New Approaches to Assessment and Flexible Degrees
As more colleges and universities offer “no courses, no time in class, no grades, no instructors” for competency-based degrees, we can expect to see some sharing of competency assessment rubrics, frameworks and processes. Some examples of educational institutions that do this already are Western Governors University, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, Purdue University, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University, Kaplan University, Walden University, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, College of America and Bellevue College and others.
In part this will occur since employers want to know that someone “signed off” as competent with respect to a body of knowledge and related capabilities from, say, Excelsior College, is as competent as someone with the same degree from Purdue. Professional organizations will also insist on comparable competency assessments. Sharing rubrics and resources is one way to ensure that this occurs. There are a variety of developments taking place here, notably new work by UNESCO and the X-Prize Foundation and by the IMS Global Learning Consortium.
Canada provides an interesting case study. Some trades have national competency frameworks which are established under the Red Seal program. Those trades and para-professional occupations not covered by Red Seal are provincially established, leading to significant differences between the competency frameworks between provinces. Recently it was suggested there is a need for a national framework for competencies, similar to that found for nursing, medicine and other professions. This enables colleges and universities to offer programs which are equivalent, enables learner mobility, and could lead to greater sharing of practices, materials and resources.
Sharing The Tools for Generating Simulations and Games
A number of disciplines – health sciences, engineering, science and mathematics are good examples – are developing games and simulations to strengthen student engagement and enrich learning. Simulations provide opportunities to work with students on complex experiments which many science departments could not make available on an “anytime” basis, never mind “anywhere”.
But simulations require building blocks and tools to make them work. There are a growing number of simulation modeling and gaming tools available as open source resources – such as OpenModelica, JaamSIm and OpenSim. These provide a basis for creating simulations, not just sharing existing simulations, as is the case with sites like Simscale. With these tools, smart technology staff, students with coding skills and faculty members working together can create new, two- and three-dimensional simulations quickly and at low cost. Indeed, various community based organizations, such as Techsdale in Toronto, which seek opportunities to teach young people coding skills, would partner on such projects to create win-win opportunities for their learners and the college or university partnering with them.
LEADING THE NEXT PHASE OF THE OER MOVEMENT
Many of those now highly engaged in OER are participating in these developments (see the list of OER Chairs below), but some are also very much tied to projects aimed at replacing existing “for profit” materials – books, learning resources, required texts, journals – with free to use materials either on campus or online. They are making strong progress. For example, the European Union recently announced its intention that all publicly-funded (including research which is jointly funded by public and private funds) scientific research papers will be freely available by 2020, thus reducing the cost of access to knowledge. Similar decisions were announced by Canada’s research councils in 2015.
The key is not so much making new OER products, services and processes available but stimulating their adoption and use. What is needed are powerful examples of the adoption of OER models, practices, assessments and new approaches to credentials making a real difference to outcomes, performance and costs. We can see these in developments such as the University of Toronto’s open UToronto, Ryerson University’s OER portal or the work in Western Canada on open textbooks.
Pockets of innovation in the use of OER abound – but a collection of pockets do not make for a suit. Colleges and universities may now need to embrace OER as a key part of their strategy for the future. It is the year of open.
At a recent major international educational conference, Bill Rankin, Director of Learning at Apple focused on the place of OER in the growingly flexible learning eco-system. He suggested that, rather than see OER in terms of a forced choice between free-to-use and to-buy materials or processes, they should be seen as part of an ecosystem from which the next developments in flexible and online learning will emerge.
This future may more closely resemble Uber-University than some of our current examples of flexible learning, but OER will provide a significant resource base from which to build the next effective practice of teaching and learning in a digital age.
Current Chairs in OER / Open and Distance Learning
ICDE Sponsored Chairs
- Prof. Martin Weller, The Open University, United Kingdom
- Dr. María Soledad Ramírez Montoya, Tecnológico de Monterrey, México
- Dr. Rory McGreal, Athabasca University, Canada (also a UNESCO-COL Chair in OER)
- Dr. Wayne Mackintosh, Open Education Resource Foundation and Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand (also a UNESCO-COL Chair in OER)
- Dr. Daniel Burgos, Universidad Internacional de la Rioja (UNIR), Spain
- Dr. Tolly S.A. Mbwette, Pan-African University Council, Tanzania
- Dr. Christian M. Stracke, Open University of Netherlands, Netherlands
- Dr. Jane-Frances Obiageli Agbu, National Open University of Nigeria, Nigeria
UNESCO-COL Sponsored Chairs on Open and Distance Learning
- Dr. Robin Day, Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand
- Professor Tolly Mbwette, Open University of Tanzania, Tanzania
- Dr. Rory McGreal, Athabasca University, Canada
- Dr. Joel Warrican, The University of the West Indies – Open Campus, Jamaica
- Professor Vincent Ado Tenebe, National Open University of Nigeria, Nigeria
- Dr. Fred Gennings Wanyavinkhumbo Msiska, Mzuzu University, Malawi