What does “Open” Mean in Open Educational Resource (OER)?

It may seem very strange to those not exposed to the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, but the everyday term “open” is imbued with layers of meaning, much like lawyers use the term “cause.”  Simply put, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The idea of “open” intellectual property is not a new one. Many writings and other creative works have been within the public domain for a very long time, or since inception.  You can freely do whatever you want with the text of the Constitution of the United States. You can copy it, store it, modify it, retain it, and even sell it. Millions of other works fall into that category, as do things that are very old and the writers are long dead.  You can rest assured that Chaucer will not be suing you for printing out an excerpt from the Canterbury Tales and passing it out to students.

The idea of OER steems from the idea that people may want to give their work to the world free of charge, but they want to retain some rights.  The most common right retained (no matter what license or lack thereof is used) is the right to attribution.  That is, if you use my work, the least you can do is tell your readers that it is mine. Many in the OER community are zealous about this idea of unfettered information and advocate a sort of information anarchy where knowledge is power, and the power belongs to everyone.    

UNESCO describes OER this way:   “Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them.”  This most certainly gives many potential OER writers and users pause. I refer to this as the expansive definition of open because “freely” covers a vast amount of ground, most of it which is unnecessary for teachers to use the material to provide high quality, no-cost educational materials to students.  The salient characteristics are commonly referred to as the “Five Rs:”

Retain:  This essentially means you own the content and nobody can take it away.  Things like corporate “access codes” that expire four months into a four and a half month term certainly don’t qualify.  If you buy a book, you own the book and thus can retain it.

Reuse.  This means you can use the material in any way you see fit, such as including it in an online course, teaching from it in a classroom, and making a video of you presenting it.

Revise.  This means you can alter the content, such as adding your own content, updating the content, or translating it into another language.

Remix.  This means you can take chunks of the work and add it to chunks of other works.  Many style guides would treat this as a “long quote” but there are no limitations as to length.

Redistribute.  This means you can pass on the original work to others, and also includes your “revisions” and “remixes” of the content.

These ideas are often seen as binary states.  Either you can redistribute the content or you cannot.  Either you can revise the content or you cannot. Creative Commons (CC) licenses do a great job of defining these binary states for your work in both legal and human language.  CC licenses are so ubiquitous in discussions of OER that the two are often conflated by educators wanting to provide students with no-cost materials, but not knowing how to approach the problem.  

I support and applaud the work the Creative Commons folks have done and will continue to do, but I acknowledge that those binary options are not appropriate for every author’s needs and taste. I for one think they are bad for scholars working toward tenure and libraries that need to justify expenses to administrators and legislators.  My OER materials are released under a license of my own devising, and some people wouldn’t consider them “open” by the expansive definition. This leads to my applied definition of “open” that professors considering OER should focus on.  There are really only a couple of criteria:

  1.  Student’s can access the material free of charge, both legally and practically.
  2.  Student’s will always be able to access the material free of charge.         

One fundamental principle of OER is the need of educators to rethink the role of “the textbook” in what we do.  We don’t use textbooks in real scholarship. We analyze many different things (mostly primary sources) and synthesize them into a cohesive whole when we write.  I urge you to think of your classes as being defined by your syllabus and your sense of what is valuable in your context.  If we think that way, we don’t have to worry about finding the “right book” for the course.  There is no telling students “We’ll be skipping chapter five” and sheepishly avoiding the fact that we aren’t going to cover half the book at all.  You may use any combination of primary sources, government documents, YouTube videos, and CC licensed textbooks. The possibilities are limitless.

My point is not to insult the idea of open resources as defined by the expansive view, but to point out that in a practical sense the standard is very high and often difficult to reach by busy teachers struggling to curate high-quality resources for students.  Perhaps the most common example of my point is the use of YouTube videos in online courses. These are not CC licensed; they are most often licensed under YouTube’s “standard” license. This does not hamper your students at all. Provide a link or embed the video and away you go.  My overarching point is don’t overthink CC licenses and limit yourself to CC licensed content. If I want my students to read something on a Nobel Prize winner’s blog, then I’ll provide a link to the content.

One final point:  Most of the material you will want to use was written by scholars with a passion for their fields.  If you email them and ask to use their content in a specific way and you aren’t trying to make money from their hard work, you will get permission most of the time.  The CC license at the bottom of the page is a quick, clear, and unambiguous green flag to use the content, but it is not necessary.

Distributing Your OER Materials: A Broadened Approach

The astronomical costs of textbooks are a significant barrier to student success, and Open Educational Resources are a welcome solution to the problem.  My intention here is not to advocate OER, but to describe some limitations of OER and how those limitations can be overcome by individual OER authors.

A potential problem with using OER in college courses is the fact that OER textbooks exist largely in a digital universe.  In rural areas, students may live where data is a premium, and they are reluctant to spend large amounts of time “logged into”an LMS.  Many students, especially those of us wh.o are “pre-millennials” have a preference for good old fashioned paper books. These factors present a problem if we simply take public domain or Creative Commons Licensed books and place them in our learning management systems.  To expand the reach of OER and develop student “buy-in,” individual authors can expand the delivery of OER materials via several different options.

Traditional academic books required that you write a proposal, send it to an editor and repeating the time-consuming process until one took an interest.  If you were lucky enough to get a contract, you did a massive amount of work, and the book publisher made a lot of money. I don’t know a single academic that has reached the level of “well off” through book royalties.  These days, the traditional textbook companies have nearly priced themselves out of business, and other modes of content delivery have risen to prominence.

We all understand that anyone can start a web page, and content management systems like WordPress have made it easier than ever to do so.  If you have the subject matter expertise and the willingness to work hard for the betterment of student kind, then you too can be an OER author.  The most common form of OER is to write a traditional book, save it as a PDF file, and post it online. When it comes to student needs and preferences, this is about the worst thing you can do.

In my professional life, I am biased toward desktop computers with big screens and lots of processing power.  I often fail to remember that my students are much more likely to access my materials on a smartphone which means a tiny screen.  Because PDF files retain your original formatting, they are very difficult to read on a small screen. If you have tried this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If you have not tried it, I encourage you to do so. PDF files are great for professionals, but they are terrible for students.

My suggestion is to first publish your OER materials as HTML files (aka web pages).  There are many ways to do this, but I suggest that you strongly consider the option of starting your own website and building a brand.  This isn’t meant to fuel your ego, but to provide easy access, a common source that you control and keep updated, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  If you want your colleagues to use your work, they need to be able to find it. I well desinged web presence can provide many benefits, and keep your materials in a nice, neat, and easily found location.  

I strongly suggest that you use a modern, device sensitive Content Management System (CMS) to build your web presence.  There are many optinos, but I strongly recommend the WordPress option, which has been made famous by the rise of blogging, and more websites are “powered by WordPress” than any other software.  Just as we academics have OER, software folks have “open source” and that is what WordPress (and its thousands of plug-ins) is. WordPress has some powerful capabilities, one of which is to optimize your content for whatever screen you find it on.  That means you see a quality product on your big screen in your office, your tablet at home, and your student’s see quality, readable content on their smartphones.

If you want to go the extra mile and provide your students with an “eBook” version of your project, you can do that via Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Program (KDP).  Amazon is a for profit business, but they allow you to charge nothing for your Kindle book because “free books” draw more users to the Kindle ecosystem, and that is good for business.   If you create your document in MS Word, KDP has free software that converts it into a very simple print book format (via a new tab) or you can get more advanced software designed to build textbooks (expect a learning curve with the more powerful software).

Once you have your Kindle book built, you can easily convert it to a paper book, and Amazon will house your book for free, and when someone orders a copy, they will print it and mail it out.  This is not a free option, but an attractive book delivered is cheaper than printing PDF files of the same size at your local business center or university library (where $0.10 per page seems to be the gold standard).  My preference is to set my price point where I make around $1.00 per book sold on Amazon to help defray the costs of maintaining my website.

If you want a better looking product, you can consider “self publishing” firms such as Booklocker.com.  There are some fees involved, especially for first time authors, but you get a lot of professional services for your money, and the product is of superior quality to what most people can do with Amazon’s automated services.  

If, in the end, you have a digital version of your OER textbook online, an eBook version available for download to a reader, and a print version that is available at very low cost, you will have captured most of the available options.  Multiple formats of your OER books will appeal to the maximum number of students, and provide alternatives to expensive textbooks at no or very little cost. This removes a significant barrier to student success.

Some Thoughts on OER

I first heard about OER by that name when listening to a presentation on the University of Arkansas System’s eVersity initiative led by Dr. Michael Moore in late 2014. I had maintained a website for most of my professional career, and have used it to post study guides, notes, and so forth. I had also used online documents—mostly government publications—as class readings. I had been posting study guides and such online for years, but the idea that complete course could be sourced with free online materials intended for educational purposes never occurred to me. My misconception at that time was that only very technical material was available in the public domain. That is, you could do a graduate course with free materials (original research reports, law review articles, government agency technical reports, etc.), but undergraduates needed material geared toward their level of knowledge and experience. To my way of thinking at the time, there was no middle ground between sources that “anyone can edit” and highly sophisticated academic publications.

Any discussion of OER brings up questions of quality. Are your OER resources as high in quality as the traditional resources everyone else seems to be using? A direct comparison between my OER materials and a $200 hardback textbook may not be in order. We first must take into account the fact that a large number of my students were not actually buying the textbook because of the “sticker price.” Any assignments based on the unpurchased text were not getting done, and the assumption that students were keeping up with the readings was patently false in many cases. For a long time, I selected texts based on pedagogical concerns. I must also confess that I was influenced by how easy those texts made my life. The more ancillary materials, the more favorably I looked on the text. I never thought to check how much it was going to cost students. I knew that textbooks were expensive in an abstract sense, but I did not realize that some students were paying more for textbooks than for tuition.

In hindsight, I now realize that the textbook publishers had colored my thinking about how to design a course very early in my career. Lacking any firm foundation in pedagogy, my process essentially involved selecting a text and designing a syllabus around it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t teaching courses. I was teaching textbooks. As I gained experience, I realized that textbooks tend to be bloated, and some chapters are essentially filler. I stopped assigning a chapter a week and started thinking about what my course was supposed to impart to the learner. I concluded that in many circumstances, depth was more important than breadth, and that the ubiquitous “Future of Your Discipline” chapter at the end of the text was purely speculative and not very useful.

A major hurdle in building courses with OER materials is overcoming the mindset that the mega-publishers have instilled in as many of us as they could. In hindsight, I realize that I bought into the notion that “canned” courses are inherently superior. The mantra that a good textbook is thorough, comprehensive, and comes with lots of extras (PowerPoints, test banks, study guides, an author website, etc.) went unchallenged. I would like to use the phrase “suffered under this delusion,” but in reality I suffered not at all. It was my students who were suffering under the yoke of an expectation that they would buy a $200 textbook. When I think back on all of this, I am reminded of a line from the film The Matrix where the character Morpheus explains to the character Neo the source of his psychological dissonance:

“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind …”

We all see our professional self through a particular lens. Some of us teach, but primarily consider ourselves to be researchers. Some of us consider ourselves golfers, and just teach to pay the bills. With some introspection, I have determined that my ego identity is intricately linked to my role as a teacher. The ultimate criterion of how good I am at this defining role is student learning. Amazingly, I never really applied this elegantly simple fact to my process. My process evolved from accidents of history; I taught my classes the way my professors taught their classes. I imagine that this progression has gone on in the ivory tower since the middle ages. Certainly, we’ve added new window dressings. My professors used chalkboards, whereas I use data projectors. Nevertheless, the basic method of “talk and chalk” has not changed on a fundamental level in a millennium. The education literature is full of caveats and empirical support for better methods and procedures, but this is not my literature. My literature revolves around how law enforcement can make our streets safer.

It follows from this epiphany that not only do I have a responsibility to master the craft of teaching, but I must also take responsibility for curriculum design. In other words, master teachers not only teach well but decide exactly what it is they will teach well. I am convinced that optimal content is not universal. Methods and materials must not be carved in granite; they must be cast in quicksilver and morph as the discipline and student cohorts transform over time and space. Being offered a chance to participate in a world where these characteristics are the expectation reminds me of yet another quote from The Matrix:

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I made the decision to join the eVersity team, I had swallowed the red pill. I would be forced to confront my deeply rooted paradigm of how higher education should work, and watch it crumble under the weight of evidence-based best practices that I was confronted with at every turn. The status quo was not sacred, and there were better ways of doing things. My practices were effete and based on tradition rather than the empirical evidence that I long claimed to hold dear as a social scientist. Perhaps the most important reality that I was forced to face was the fact that students tend not to buy overpriced textbooks. My paradigm was rooted in the idea that students would read the course materials that I assigned, and that this would fuel brilliant intellectual discourse in the next class session. That faulty assumption failed to withstand the light of empirical research as well as my personal experiences. I knew that many students were not reading, but it never occurred to me that this was because they simply were not buying the textbook.

By directly being involved in a new breed of course design, I was forced to change the way I did things (by mandates from my friendly but firm instructional designer). After I had done things their way, I became convinced of the general superiority of those methods. Not long after, the new catchphrase on my home campus became “student retention.” The literature on this topic suggests that economics is a barrier to many students staying the course. This was not lost on our administration at the time, and talk turned to OER as a way of reducing student costs. We in the ivory tower often lose sight of the economic reality of higher education—it’s an expensive endeavor, and you must “pay to stay.” To my surprise, many of the faculty bitterly resisted the idea of OER. I proffer another quote from the sage Morpheus to explain this phenomenon:

“…[Y]ou have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

One of the most prevalent arguments I heard against OER was quality control. Simply put, OER is not vetted for quality in any way. While this argument may sound valid on a prima facie basis, it is not logically consistent on closer examination. Textbooks, unlike journal articles, are not usually peer-reviewed. An editor whose job it is to sell expensive textbooks, not serve as a gatekeeper for the professional literature, editorially reviews them. The ultimate flaw in this argument is the very fact that the people making the argument are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs in the literature). They have terminal degrees in their respective fields. They have conducted research in those areas. Who better to vet OER materials for quality than those tasked with teaching the material? I submit that if a professor is uncomfortable judging the quality of educational resources, then he or she is not an expert in the field and has no place in the classroom. In the final analysis, support of this argument is tantamount to admitting that you are a fraud.

Before you take the red pill, there are some things you should consider. Many have complained that there is no central “comprehensive catalog of resources.” This thinking reflects the old paradigm; a search for a complete package that replicates what the textbook publishers have to offer. The beauty of OER is that it allows you to teach exactly what you want to teach the way you want to teach it. If it does not fit your vision of what your course should be, you simply reject it and move on to something else. This means curation of resources on the smallest of levels. Do not think of a course as a textbook; think of it as a mosaic of facts and ideas that you and your students produce through synergy. The questions that you must ask yourself are simple: What facts and ideas do I want my students to learn? What is the absolute best way to present that information to my learners? Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to dive into the rabbit hole; you will find to your dismay that the rabbit hole is very, very deep.

By “very deep” I mean that the world of free information (Creative Commons licensed, public domain, government publications, and so forth) is dauntingly immense. When you think on the level of ideas rather than courses, the problem will not be finding resources. It will be sorting through myriad resources to find the perfect one that accomplishes just what you want it to accomplish. Sometimes the perfect solution may not be out there; it is more likely that you just haven’t found it. Either way, a potential solution is to write your own OER materials. By creating your own OER (and listing them with catalog sites such as Merlot and OER Commons) you not only improve the quality of your own classes but potentially strengthen education across your entire field of endeavor. The cost of all this free information? Time. Staggering swaths of precious time. If you subscribe to the adage that “time is money” then you will never be an OER enthusiast or author. Curating materials takes time, and writing OER materials takes still more. Your motivations must be altruistic, and your rewards will be intrinsic. If you are the type of person that is willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good and that feels comfortable thinking outside the box, then you will find using and creating OER immensely rewarding. I leave you with one last Matrix quote, this one from The Oracle:

“I don’t expect you to do anything. I expect what I’ve always expected, for you to make up your own damn mind. Believe me or don’t.”