Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Open Education in Higher Ed: Textbooks, OpenCourseWare, and the “S” Word

Published:  September 2, 2010
Photo Credit: Screenshot of Flat World Knowledge website

This year, 800 colleges will turn to Flat World Knowledge to fill their educational needs. The open textbook publishing company offers free online access to openly-license textbook content and affordable access to print-on-demand copies of the books. 

This is a guest post from Timothy Vollmer, an Open Policy Fellow for Creative Commons.

Inside the beltway, there’s been increasing interest from policymakers in exploring the benefits of publicly funded Open Educational Resources (OER). OER are 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 or re-purposing by others. Initiatives supportive of open education have been discussed in various places within the federal government: the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund, National Education Technology Plan, Proposed Grant Priorities, National Learning Registry, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, and in proposed federal legislation.

OER are beginning to be explored as a way to support innovation in education in a cost-effective manner. Yet the states have been involved too, supporting digital textbook initiatives and adopting open licensing policies for competitive grants.

In higher ed, one reason for interest in OER is the increasing cost of educational materials, especially textbooks. According to a widely-cited 2005 GAO report, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation over the last 20 years; Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) suggest the increase is closer to 4X over roughly the same time period. Recently, a provision in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (passed in 2008) went into effect that will help address textbook affordability and access to pricing information. These efforts in the field of open textbooks have implications for groups ranging from the academic to the political to the economic.

Open textbook options are beginning to be explored by professors and students. The Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign describes open textbooks as “texts offered online under a license that allows free digital access and low-cost printing...[t]he open license also gives instructors the flexibility to tailor the text to better fit a course by removing unneeded chapters or adding new material.”

Open textbooks are also being supported by policymakers—the Open College Textbook Act was introduced in Congress last year and would establish a federally funded competitive grant program for the creation of open textbooks.

Last, but not least, they are also central to innovative business models. Open textbook publishing start-up Flat World Knowledge offers free online access to openly-licensed textbook content (textbooks are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license) and affordable access to print-on-demand copies of the books (usually $20-60). Flat World recently released information saying that 800 colleges will utilize their open textbooks this year, saving 150,000 students $12 million or more in textbook expenses.

Support for OER in higher ed has been observed most notably in the OpenCourseWare (OCW) movement. The development and dissemination of OCW has been primarily supported by philanthropic foundations, such as the Hewlett Foundation. Perhaps the flagship of all OCW projects has been the MIT OpenCourseWare project, which began in 2002 and published its 2000th course in July 2010. Also, online open courses offered by the UK’s Open University have been downloaded 20 million times via iTunesU. And the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a community committed to advancing OpenCourseWare and its impact on global education, consists of hundreds of universities and associated organizations from around the world.

Interesting OER initiatives have been developing in community colleges, as well. The Open Course Library Project aims to take 80 of the highest enrolled courses in Washington State’s community college system and design them to be digital, modular and open. All the course materials will be released under a Creative Commons Attribution license, allowing teachers, students, and self-learners to access, share, and adapt the resources for their own use. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently spoke at the commencement ceremonies at Foothill and De Anza community colleges, praising the school’s use of open educational resources.

Undoubtedly OER initiatives within higher education will come across the “S” Word—sustainability—sooner rather than later. Sustainability is seen through a wide lens at MIT OCW, with the open course materials being used and adapted by faculty, increasing their professional standing and organization of their own course materials. Nearly all MIT students say that OCW has positively affected their educational experience, and over a third of freshmen were aware of MIT’s OCW before attending and were influenced by it. The MIT OCW program is a powerful marketing and promotional tool for MIT generally, showcasing interesting course content for teachers, students, alumni, and self-learners around the world. (For more on MIT OCW impact, see the 2009 Program Evaluation Findings Summary.)

The intersection of distance education and OCW has been of increasing interest to scholars studying open education. David Wiley, Associate Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology and longtime open education advocate, reports on Dr. Justin Johansen’s study The Impact of OpenCourseWare on Paid Enrollment in Distance Learning Courses, asserting that Johansen’s dissertation “is the first piece of empirical work I am aware of that demonstrates clearly that a distance learning program can simultaneously (1) provide a significant public good by publishing OpenCourseWare and (2) be revenue positive while doing it.”

With self-sustaining OCWs, innovative business models like Flat World Knowledge, and an increasing movement supporting public access to publicly funded educational materials, OER—including open textbooks—will continue its transition from an interesting experiment to a demonstrated model that empowers teachers, boosts student achievement, and saves money in the process. 

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