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Open Education Week Raises OER Awareness in Higher Education

But not every faculty member knows about open educational resources.

by Tanya Roscorla / March 11, 2016

As Open Education Week comes to a close, it's time to reflect on how far open educational resources (OER) have come and what challenges lie ahead.

Though it's been 15 years since MIT blazed the trail for OER by making its course material freely available online through MIT OpenCourseWare, many faculty members still don't know about it. That's the point of Open Education Week: to raise awareness of open education, what people are doing with it and how it can increase teaching and learning, said Mary Lou Forward, executive director of The Open Education Consortium.

"We still have a pretty big battle to just let people know that these resources exist for them and there are options," she said. 

Though OER adoption started in higher education, it invaded the K-12 space as more educators saw the benefits: no cost, more up-to-date and customizable materials. And college students have increasingly clamored for these materials, even though open education advocates initially targeted faculty members. 

"At the beginning, people didn't really expect students to use the resources as much as they do," said Forward.

As for faculty members, open education has rapidly evolved as they remix and personalize resources to meet individual students' needs, Forward said, adding that the advent of open textbooks has also helped. When such a tool is available, the jump into open educational resources is less scary for teachers and professors who are used to the tangible textbook in the classroom.

In fact, "one of the big drivers has been the skyrocketing costs of textbooks, making it inaccessible for some people to buy the books for the class they need to take," said Lyda Kiser, director of the Office of Transition Programs at Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia.

Because textbooks have been so expensive, faculty members felt like they needed to organize their class around the textbook, Forward said. However, open educational resources have released them from the tyranny of the textbook so they can design their class around learning objectives. 

"If they're not making students pay for expensive resources, it kind of frees them up to say, 'What do I want students to learn?'" Forward said.

They also have more freedom to mix in different kinds of learning resources, including videos, interactive simulations and exercises. These different modalities allow students to learn in ways that match their learning style, said Kiri Johnson, digital librarian for Knowledge to Work at Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia. In a student success skills class, Kiser incorporates videos and exercises, which allow her to encourage active learning. 

Ultimately, faculty members who push for open educational resources will influence their peers, Kiser said. They can share their positive experiences and encourage other faculty to use them too. A peer group for open educational resources just started in the Virginia Community College System, and Kiser said she thinks this group will help encourage faculty to change.

Along with increasing awareness of these materials, Forward said, increasing their visibility and accessibility presents another challenge: With more than 100,000 open educational resources in various repositories and websites around the world, it can be difficult to find something that will work well for 7th grade art history, for example. 

The key to tackling this challenge is improving the metadata that's tagged for each resource, she said, noting that a resource that's tagged "U.S. history" isn't particularly helpful to the 7th grade U.S. art history teacher. A number of organizations are working on this problem by developing matrixes to categorize content effectively.

In addition, referatories search and link to different repositories, both of which allow users to add resources to collections like 11th grade English, for example. Even if the resource isn't tagged correctly, Forward said that its presence in a specific collection helps others figure out how to use it. OER Commons, CK-12 Foundation, MERLOT and OpenStax allow users to crowdsource with collections.

Once educators find resources, they have to identify whether they're accessible to every student. If they're not, they have to keep looking.

At Lord Fairfax Community College, Johnson keeps a running list of individual publishers and repositories so she can know where to look when she's helping faculty identify resources. She's also working on a new educational portal and search engine that will make it easier to find learning resources that the college has mapped to competencies. She plans to have the first version live by the end of March.

The portal and search engine are part of the college's Knowledge to Work project that received a $3.25 million grant in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Labor. Knowledge to Work creates personalized, competency-based degree and certificate programs in high-growth, high-wage industries while using open educational resources.

"I'm very excited about the project that we're working on right now," Johnson said, "because we are making education much more affordable to our students."

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