OER and Open Textbooks part of solution to the current higher education crisis

Image provided by Paul Saad, released under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 generic license.

Principal Investigator Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams reflects on recent upheavals in higher education centring around costs and access to educational opportunities. With the ROER4D project entering the final 18 months of OER research, she considers how OER and Open Textbooks might be part of the solution to what is an impending higher education crisis.

Around the world students are or have been engaged in protests against the current state of higher education in their respective countries. Recent protests in countries in the so-called Global North (e.g. United Kingdom, Germany, Spain) and the Global South (e.g. Bangladesh, India and South Africa) indicate widespread discontent with the current provision and financial models in higher education. This deep unhappiness about the lack of affordable access to relevant higher education has centred around issues such as the imposition of tuition fees (e.g. Germany), high tuition fees (e.g. South Africa), cuts to education spending (e.g. Spain), the imposition of tax on tuition fees (e.g. Bangladesh), the discontinuation of scholarships (e.g. India), transformation or ‘decolonisation’ of universities (e.g. South Africa) and full education reform (e.g. Chile).

The emergence of the ‘Open Education’ movement has been hailed as a part of a workable response to some of these genuine challenges in higher education. Open Education embraces fairly new forms of web-enabled activities such as Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Textbooks, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). OER and Open Textbooks are being promoted as a response to the demand for affordable and current learning materials for students (and lecturers), and MOOCs as a way of providing expert and cost-effective tuition.

In countries in the Global North great strides are being taken at the moment to harness the cost-savings of OER and Open Textbooks in particular. In the past week the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that they would be proposing a new regulation that would require “all copyrightable intellectual property created with Department grant funds to have an open license”. Apart from potential cost savings OER also allow for the contribution of perspectives alternate to the dominant views expressed in traditional textbooks, offering lecturers and students the opportunity to share their particular curricula standpoints. While the cost benefits of Open Textbooks are already being explored in a number of US institutions (e.g. University of Maryland University College), they are yet to be established in the educational institutions in the Global South. The potential of OER to challenge the prevailing perspectives and offer different interpretations is yet to be fully realised.

Responding to the challenges for more accessible, affordable and relevant in specific contexts in the Global South, the Research on Open Educational Resources for Development (ROER4D) Project has as its main aim the provision of evidence-based research from a number of countries in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia on the use and impact of OER. Amongst others it includes studies on the cost-effectiveness and quality of OER in the Philippines, factors influencing the adoption of OER in higher education in Mongolia, academics’ perceptions of OER contribution in India and South Africa, academics’ practices in creating MOOCs as OER in South Africa, teacher educators’ co-creation of learning and teaching materials in India and Colombia, teacher educators’ localisation of existing OER in India and Malaysia, teachers changing beliefs and practices with sustained OER engagement in East Africa, teachers’ engagement with an OER library in Afghanistan, student teachers’ use of OER in Sri Lanka as well as students’ use of OER in Chile. All these projects aim to better understand how open education  can make the cost of educational materials more readily available, more economical and more pertinent to the needs of students and teachers.

Investigating how learning materials can be more obtainable, cheaper and suitable to students is part of the complex higher education ‘ecosystem’ that needs to be unravelled to address the growing discontent. While this situation affecting higher education is not new, it is deepening as a result of a range of confounding issues including controversial government or institutional stances on higher education provision within the global economic downturn and is needing more thoughtful responses than ever before. The ROER4D Project will provide some insights into how OER in particular are being used and under what circumstances OER are having an impact on some of the concerns raised by students and educators such as affordable and relevant higher education.

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