OERs: the future of education?

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The pandemic has provided a tantalising glimpse of the potential of open educational resources. Rebecca Pool asks: will they become our new normal?

When University College London launched UCL Press, in 2015, the library services team wanted the open access university press to become the OA publisher of choice for authors, editors and readers around the world. Six years, 180 research monographs and more than four million downloads later, the press has, without a doubt, been embraced by many.

Paul Ayris, pro-vice provost and director of UCL Library Services, tells Research Information: ‘With only 180 books, we've reached more than 240 countries and territories across the world... as the UK's first fully open access university press, we've seen the impact the press has had.’

Over this time, one of the top ten downloads has been an e-textbook on burns and plastic surgery produced by Deepak Kalaskar from Medical Sciences at UCL and director of the  MSc course in burns, plastic and reconstructive surgery. According to Ayris, the book's 70,000 downloads are proof that e-textbooks and open educational resources have a clear future at UCL, a point that's only been underlined by the current pandemic.

‘UCL has now given us funding to produce an e-textbook service,’ he says. ‘We have 45,000 students at UCL and when the libraries physically closed and students couldn't get access to physical copies... we saw that digital education and providing open educational materials was the way to go.’

‘I wouldn't have said that 12 months ago, but I'm saying it now,’ he adds.

Right now, UCL is piloting an open access repository, UCL Discovery, for its open educational resources, has established its online publication platform, BOOC, Books as Open Online Content, for OA ebooks and content, and expects to start its dedicated e-textbook service in a year. Work is underway to explore whether this service will have its own dedicated platform or UCL Discovery will disseminate content, with consultants also looking at the best workflows and OA business models. But whatever the outcome one year from now, Ayris is excited.

‘We're still in the advocacy stage of OERs and are encouraging lecturers to use our platform but we've had one or two expressions of interest from other universities that want to join us with this,’ he says. ‘I don't know of any other university in Europe that is building an OER e-textbook platform.’

Given the current industry row over e-textbook pricing, this can't come a moment too soon for Ayris. In his words, when academics learn how 'ruinously expensive' e-textbooks are for students, they suddenly become very interested in the alternatives.

‘This is a critical moment in the development of OERs as we've seen in the last 12 months that current models and provision just don't cut it with students or universities either,’ he says. ‘Indeed, when I took the latest bill for our commercial interests with purchasing to the Provost and Deans faculty, they were outraged.’

Like many across the scholarly community, David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, is watching OER developments from UCL and elsewhere with great interest. And in a similar vein to Ayris, he believes the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered change.

‘[Coronavirus] has acted as a real catalyst for OERs especially with many institutions that, quite frankly, have had to muddle through without access to necessary teaching materials through the lockdowns,’ he says.

Similarly, Prosser also believes the pandemic has shone a spotlight on e-textbook cost issues, throwing open the door to OA alternatives. As such, he is certain that UK library communities are becoming increasingly interested in OERs.  ‘The current [e-textbook] pricing models have shown themselves to be so blatantly inadequate that people have had to look elsewhere,’ he asserts. ‘I believe that in the long-term, open educational resources could be one of the most significant solutions here... and the RLUK hopes to play a coordinating role in bringing interested parties together.’

Still, much needs to be done. In June 2020, SPARC Europe, a Dutch advocate of open access, science, scholarship and education, released the results of its survey, 'Open Education in European Libraries of Higher Education'.

Analysis revealed that few libraries reported having the funds, grants or budgets for open educational work while policies dedicated to OERs were sparse. Other findings included respondents being split 50/50 on whether the library should take a leading in advancing OERs in their organisations and that open education was still a relatively new concept in the library.

Importantly, the report also made a series of recommendations on funds, leadership, policy and how to grow resources including earmarking library budgets and supporting internal OE champions. Prosser agrees that OERs aren't yet mainstream in terms of production and use, and reckons resources first need to find their way onto university reading lists. 

For starters, he advocates a reward system being developed within institutions and departments that recognises the time and effort that an academic spends on creating a high-quality OER. ‘People need kudos and could get a tick against their names that manifests itself against, say, career development – we just don't have this right now,’ he says.

Prosser also points to the need for mechanisms of quality control in OERs. ‘For example, I think it would be really interesting if scholarly societies could 'kite-mark' sets of materials, which could also serve as reward or validation,’ he says.

‘We're really lucky in the UK to have some very active and thoughtful societies that may have some ideas here,’ he adds. ‘OERs is an area that the UK library community is increasingly interested in and I think it would be interesting for us or someone else to convene a group that is interested in this.’

A flying start

Across the Atlantic, US colleges are ahead of UK institutions on OER adoption. Myriad OER repositories exist, including Oasis from the Commonwealth of Learning, Merlot, set up by the California State University, and OER Commons, created by Californian non-profit organisation, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. Indeed, rising interest in OERs at the US state level as a means to make college education more affordable prompted SPARC, US, to set up a State Policy Tracker that tracks OER policy on a weekly basis.

So why the OER adoption gap between the US and UK? Clearly each nation's education system is based on very different models. But as Andrea Eastman-Mullins, founder and CEO of US-based West End Learning, points out: 'I think the UK has been a little more forward thinking in terms of recognising teaching and the tenure promotion process, so now the US is feeling the pain of student affordability more which has resulted in more [OER] advocacy.'

Indeed, according to Eastman-Mullins, the early adopters of OERs in the US, have been largely motivated by student affordability. ‘They really see the pain of the average college student paying $1200 on textbooks every year,’ she says. ‘In the US, deciding between buying a textbook or buying food is a real issue for some students.’

Despite advocacy, numerous OER repositories and early adopters, issues exist. For example, an ongoing survey on OERs from the Babson Survey Research Group recently put faculty awareness at less than 50 per cent.

Eastman-Mullins believes that many lecturers may be using OERs in the form of open textbooks, videos and other materials without realising but like RLUK's Prosser, she believes incentives in the form of recognition are needed to increase the use of OERs. 

‘The OER movement in the US has sustained a lot of traction by giving mini-grants or stipends to faculty that are willing to take the time to convert courses to OERs,’ she says. ‘But what would go even further is to recognise the time involved [in creating and using OERs] in the tenure and promotion process. We're seeing movement in this direction but it's definitely a steeper hill to climb.’

Yet, recognition aside, Eastman-Mullins reckons one of the biggest motivating factors for academics is also inspiration. ‘Introducing [lecturers] to different open materials pedagogically is very inspiring,’ she says. ‘For example, using Underground Comics to teach in the humanities can brighten peoples' ideas of what their course can be.’

Discovering OERs

Still, as more academics turn to OERs, more and more issues around discoverability are emerging. As Eastman-Mullins points out, faculty 'still has a way to go' to recognise what resources are available. And then lecturers need specific material – be it a five minute video or relevant book chapter with the necessary copyright - that fits into their existing courses.

‘I’ve seen studies that say it takes an extra 160 hours to prepare for courses using this kind of digital content, which means people give up and revert back to the text book,’ she says.

UCL's Ayris concurs but points out how the the e-textbook material being created at the university and deposited into UCL Discovery is primarily aimed at supporting its own students, and as such, is driven by the UCL curriculum. ‘Dissemination is very straightforward through our strong team of subject liaison librarians,’ he says.

However, materials from UCL Press have been indexed on several large-scale international platforms including JSTOR, as well as Google. ‘I think this is how to make the materials from our international collaborations available and visible – from our experience with research monographs this has been hugely successful,’ he says.

For her part, Eastman-Mullins, with West End Learning, has developed the 'Syllect' platform which screens, curates and matches resources to course topics. A first version covers entrepreneurship and innovation and other disciplines are going to follow. ‘We make sure, for example, that [an OER] is relevant for a discipline, copyright is cleared for re-use, and links are stable,’ she says. ‘We've been testing this with partner institutions and faculty, and will launch this during summertime.’

Eastman-Mullins also believes the platform will help with the potential OER quality issues that concern many in academia. ‘A lot of the time, quality comes by word of mouth but the challenge comes if you're tapped to teach a course that you're not an expert in,’ she says. ‘So we've built recommendations into our process... and we're now also thinking of building impact metrics to the platform too.’

Eastman-Mullins launched West End Learning in early 2020, which based in Winston-Salem – a North Carolina city home to six higher education institutions – is well placed for hands-on development and collaborations. However, what she hadn't initially factored into her business venture was the college closures that coronavirus would bring, and as she points out, the pandemic has had its pros and cons.

On the downside, some local programmes from community colleges or other institutions have stalled while staff deal with fallout from Covid-19. But on the upside, she believes many lecturers and academics are now ready for 'something different'. ‘They're already over the hurdle of teaching differently and as people come back onto campus, faculties everywhere know that in many ways, there's no going back to the way it was,’ she says.

Indeed, as she highlights, OpenStax, a non-profit Rice University initiative that publishes peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks that are free online, recently received $12.5 million from philanthropic organisations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. OpenStax's goal is to ensure that no student ever has to worry about textbook costs again, and intends to double the size of its library with the latest raft of grants.

‘There's this new awareness coming out of the pandemic,’ says Eastman-Mullins. ‘I really think the OER movement will now continue to grow, even though we've had a slight lag over the past year.’

And Ayris holds similar aspirations. ‘I’d like to see UCL's OER and open access e-textbook offering to be widely appreciated and used by our academic community and all those that can benefit from resources made available in this way,’ he says. ‘My hope is that OERs are going to be part of the “new normal”.’

A growing impact

In developing nations, the demand for high quality educational materials is constrained by sparse human resources and overwhelming financial pressures – but OERs can make the difference. Here, free, open and reusable learning and teaching resources can help to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, a fact that isn't lost on Philippa Benson, managing editor of CABI Agriculture and Bioscience, an open access journal from BioMed Central.

‘Open educational resources are critically important for researchers and educators in lower and middle income countries who have to make difficult decisions about how they spend their money,’ she says. ‘Climate change is already having a huge impact on food security, planetary health and equity, and good quality open educational resources are becoming increasingly important in helping people to get the basic information they need to address these issues.’

While CABI Agriculture and Bioscience publishes OA research on such issues, more recently the organisation has launched a series of free webinars that provide information on how to successfully publish research. For example, these include detail on the CHORUS initiative that aims to optimise a publication's metadata in CrossRef, data repository requirements as well as other practices that increase the visibility of OA publications.

‘Many researchers [in developing nations] just don't fully understand the importance of information and it’s so important we get this out there so research can be designed with open science in mind,’ says Benson.

In a similar vein, CABI A&B has also launched its 'Meet an editor' series that provides free interviews with section editors on critical research areas and how to get research published. ‘We really need to have this global outreach,’ says Benson.

Eventually, the managing director is hopeful that a new kind of open journal will emerge where the researcher can access an article, click on a figure to reach its dataset and then retrieve the underlying open data for his or her own work. ‘This is already happening,’ she says. ‘A journal or top-level educational resource becomes a portal or gateway into an entire ocean of scientific information that anyone can draw on and learn about the experiences of others.’