Opening Up a New World of Learning

CAP Event Examines Open-Source Education Materials

The Center for American Progress hosted a discussion on how open source learning tools are changing the face of higher education.

On February 7 the Center for American Progress hosted an event with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, to explore the potential advantages of open courseware and other open educational resources, or OER—which are defined as any educational resources that are openly available for use by educators and students without needing to pay royalties or license fees. CAP also released two policy briefs that explore these resources and introduce a few of the leaders of this innovative movement.

In her keynote address, Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter lauded OER’s potential to improve quality, expand availability, and reduce costs in higher education. She opened her remarks by relating a story from her time as chancellor of the Foothill–De Anza Community College District and its nearly 50,000 students, when she had to institute an emergency book fund for students training to be emergency medical technicians because the course’s textbook cost $500—too much for many of the students to afford. Her story demonstrated that textbooks and other required costs—not only tuition—can be a financial strain on ordinary students.

She also said that OER’s future is dependent on three things: high quality, which relies on peer review and research, to ensure that OER “can match any traditional textbook”; a market, which has to be effectively built and fostered for the mutual benefit of the public sector, private sector, and students; and affordability, to make sure that OER enables students to get a good education for a reasonable cost.

Following Kanter’s speech, Steve Carson, external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare, gave a broad overview that introduced OER’s opportunities and challenges. Carson suggested that technology enables OER to reach a global audience and also to be compared to other materials and improved upon accordingly.

Carson also said, however, that OER still has an “immature ecosystem,” and that it faces resistance from universities and publishers, as well as questions of whether or not it can sustain itself in the long run. His comments suggest that many obstacles remain in place before a universally accepted market for OER can be established.

After Carson’s presentation, a panel of experts discussed the three necessities outlined by Kanter. Moderated by Rebecca Klein-Collins, director of research at CAEL, the panel included Undersecretary Kanter; Nicole Allen, text book advocate with Student PIRGS and director of Make Textbooks Affordable; Michael Carroll, professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law; and Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University.

When asked how OER’s quality can be verified when it is so open, Johnstone said that students she works with determine for themselves what materials are helpful and share that information with their peers.

In terms of developing a new marketplace for OER, Carroll discussed how OER is changing the publishing industry: “The 21st century is going to be the century of open materials, and we need open business models that know how to take these open inputs and then create wealth and innovation out of those.”

He suggested new incentives need to be established to encourage and reward authors of open courseware and other open-source materials.

Allen described how “the Internet has really changed the rules of the game. Now that everything is digital, it just doesn’t work the same way. Way back when, a publisher was the only way to share information, so of course, that right was reserved, and expected. But now, you can share information with the entire world at virtually no cost, so that just completely changes things.

“And yet we have the traditional publishing industry using copyright as a means to stop students from printing textbooks or translating them into whatever format they want, because of concerns, and real concerns, about piracy.”

She said that OER provides a legal way to “share and reuse” information and materials, and businesses that embrace it “are immune from piracy.”

Following the panel discussion, Klein-Collins said, “I think all of the comments have really … pointed to the fact that this is really blowing open the door to opportunities that we never would have even dreamed of five years ago, and opening new landscapes for learning and for work in the 21st century.”

For more on this event, please see its event page.

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