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A NITLE Working Paper

9. Obstacles Facing Open Education at Liberal Arts Colleges

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What does it take for a campus to make use of open educational resources? At first glance, it may seem that free, accessible, and high quality educational resources surely win an audience rapidly. Yet surveys show using OER holding little interest for faculty.[1] As Harley et al. found in their 2010 study of open textbooks, faculty want “flexibility and choice in textbook options,” as do students.[2] Faculty attitudes seem to vary according to the type of institution (e.g. public research university, state university, community college). Some faculty may not find appropriate high quality open textbooks to support their teaching; others believe that students need to have a print option because ebooks do not support annotation and other practices that help students learn better (although ebooks do increasingly support such features now). However, faculty also worry about the rising costs of textbooks and have pursued “temporary solutions” such as placing readings on reserve, adopting earlier editions, or creating course readers.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 OER adoption is, as noted earlier, difficult to ascertain. Major courseware projects have only recently started sharing usage metrics; use cases are the subject of ongoing research. At present we can identify several obstacles to OER usage by faculty:

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  • Lack of awareness. Even though the open education movement has been active for over a decade, many faculty remain unaware of it. According to a 2010 survey, 50% of University of Michigan faculty have never heard of OCW; more faculty were aware of open courseware at Universidad Politecnica de Valencia, Spain (65%), University of Cape Town, South Africa (80%), and Danubius University of Galati, Romania (92%).[4]
  • Inertia. If faculty already have course resources that satisfy them, they are unlikely to seek alternatives.
  • Concerns about quality: A common concern around OER focuses on quality, as people may equate free with less valuable. Without the imprimatur of a publisher or of peer review (although OER could include both), faculty are less likely to trust freely available materials. As Harley et al. found with open textbooks, faculty “expressed concerns about open textbooks as an affordability solution, citing, in particular, issues around remuneration for authors, protection of intellectual property, quality of the content, and overall accessibility.”[5] Inexpensively produced open textbooks may not go through the same editorial process as do textbooks released by publishers, such as editorial review and copy editing.[6] As Jennifer Spohrer noted in her survey response, quality has several dimensions, including content, ease of use, and effective instructional design: “‘Quality’ is an issue on more than just a content or pedagogical design level. Students care about ease of use and how quickly elements run and load, and they often respond negatively to things that ‘look dated’ even when they are otherwise satisfactory. Faculty want not only solid content and pedagogical design, but also material that is easy to implement, has intuitive student and instructor interfaces, is modular and/or customizable, and is likely to continue being available and up-to-date in the future.”
  • The character of teaching at liberal arts colleges. Many liberal arts classes, particularly in the humanities, do not use textbooks, instead relying on articles, books published by university presses, and other content.
  • Not Invented Here syndrome. Unlike using other off-campus material (e.g. textbooks), employing open textbooks could risk making the instructor look less professional, no matter its quality. Paul Stacey notes that while institutions such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon enthusiastically author OER, they typically do not use OER produced by others: “They are encumbered by a “not-invented here” syndrome where OER developed anywhere else except at that institution cannnot [sic] possibly be as good as what has been developed in house.”[7] Overcoming this problem requires changes in culture and attitude, as well as institutions collaborating to develop materials in their areas of strength and using materials created by others. As Wiley, Green, and Soares argue, “The academic culture from elementary to higher education must change from “not invented here” to ‘proudly borrowed from there.’”[8]
  • Difficulty finding appropriate OER. Faculty often struggle to find available OER due to lack of content, poor search engines, and inadequate indexing.[9] Indeed, a JISC study determined that novice OER users were successful in finding appropriate content only about half of the time, and that they had more success with general sites such as Flickr and Google than at OER specific sites like MIT OCW (although resources discovered through general sites were less likely to be true OER).[10] Although the number of open textbooks is increasing, they are still “only available for a fraction of courses” and may not be matched well to the liberal arts curriculum.[11] Bryn Mawr has found that it takes substantial time to sort through the abundance of resources and find what works for a particular class, particularly if faculty are taking innovative, integrated approaches to teaching. Sometimes appropriate material isn’t available, sometimes it is aimed more at high school than college students, and sometimes it is isn’t sequenced in the way that instructors have designed their courses or uses examples that aren’t consistent with their pedagogical approaches. OER directories such as OER Commons[12] can help identify resources, but these are not comprehensive and not targeted to the liberal arts curriculum.[13]
  • Preference for the physical: Many students prefer print to electronic books because they want to annotate the text easily, prefer to read hard copy, or want to have a bound textbook to which they can refer.[14] Indeed, a 2010 survey by the Student PIRGs found that 75% of students preferred print,[15] although a more recent (2012) survey found that 6 in 10 students preferred digital textbooks.[16] In any case, as digital reading platforms improve, these concerns may recede. In addition, students can typically print or secure low-cost printed copies of open textbooks.
  • Digital divide. Given the reliance of open education on networked technologies, learners’ lack of access to appropriate technologies and sufficient bandwidth can pose a significant barrier. It is also important to ensure that open educational materials meet accessibility standards so that students with visual or other impairments can use them.
  • Open educational materials typically lack services provided by commercial publishers. Whereas no technical support is required to use a print textbook, digital learning materials often do require support, whether that is in using interactive features or maintaining links. Most OER come without such support. Furthermore, faculty may be less willing to use open textbooks if supplemental materials are lacking.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Even more significant obstacles face colleges interested in the producing OER, including:

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  • Recruiting faculty authors. Much of the work advancing open education takes place at the grass roots, with faculty contributing hours of free labor to produce OER.[17] Although some authors are motivated by the opportunity to share their knowledge, it may be difficult to scale up the production of OER beyond this committed core without incentives.[18] For faculty, time is at a premium, so most would need release time, funding, and/or credit toward tenure and promotion to commit to writing an open textbook.[19]
  • Intellectual property concerns. Even if courses, textbooks, or even learning modules are themselves open, they often rely upon copyrighted content, such as articles or figures. Universities can face significant expense in removing copyrighted materials from open courses or in securing permissions.[20] In addition, potential faculty contributors may resist giving away their intellectual property.
  • Cost/Developing Sustainable Business Models. One of the key questions that higher education must face in considering open education is defining the business model.[21] Developing, improving and sustaining open educational resources and platforms require significant investments. Who is going to pay? While using OER may be free, producing them entails significant costs, including developing content, performing quality control, and supporting the underlying technical infrastructure. As Jennifer Spohrer remarked in her response to our survey, liberal arts colleges will likely face significant challenges in covering the costs of producing and maintaining OER, especially given the lack of long-term foundation support:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 OER have significant potential. However, it is worth remembering that while the intellectual content is made freely to users, there are still development, maintenance, upgrade, hosting and tech support costs associated with these materials. In a commercial model, the vendor generally covers much of these costs through the license fees or sales price. If in the case of OER these associated costs are simply pushed onto users, they may not be cost-effective for liberal arts colleges, which typically have small tech support staffs and budgets. Faculty generally won’t spend time developing courses around technologies and resources that are unlikely to be usable or available over several years. So far I have seen foundation support for developing such materials, but not as much for maintaining, hosting and providing long-term support for users.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Research universities and community college systems seem to have taken the lead in producing open educational materials, in part because of the costs entailed. As Candice Thille argues, “Small colleges face enormous budget pressures in the face of increasing competition, dwindling enrollments and increased costs. Technology development is costly and they cannot compete.”[22] At MIT, converting a course to OCW cost approximately $25,000 per course, not counting maintenance and improvement.[23] Operating MIT OCW costs about $3.5 million each year.[24] Yale spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on each of its Open Yale courses, which includes paying videographers, making transcripts, and performing quality assurance.[25] Creating OLI courses is even more expensive—about $250,000 per course.[26] Producing high quality open textbooks involves not only writing the text, but also creating (or securing licenses for) figures and images, overseeing peer review, copyediting, marketing, and so forth. Given that publishers typically invest significant resources to publish a textbook, how can colleges create an inexpensive alternative without sacrificing quality, especially since they lack publishers’ expertise in textbook production?[27]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Institutionalizing innovative projects poses a major challenge at many colleges. Often open education projects are driven by just a few people, and turnover or a shift in the participants’ priorities can mean the end of the project.[28] Furthermore, as universities facing an increasingly competitive environment look to new revenue streams, they may decide that they cannot afford to give away intellectual property. Middlebury College, for instance, recently launched Middlebury Interactive Learning as a separate entity with the company K12 as partner. In order for development to continue, it needs to be profitable. Yet institutions that see strategic value in open education may determine that the indirect rewards merit institutional investment, or they may find inventive business models that enable them to generate direct revenue from open education.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Colleges need to find appropriate models to integrate such projects into their mission and sustain them. Economic models to support open education vary. Funding for many has come from private foundations, notably the William and Flora Hewlett, Gates, and Mellon Foundations. While foundations and grants may help to launch open education projects, they typically do not provide long-term support to sustain these projects. Taylor Walsh warns that open courseware initiatives, which often were started in a better economic environment and supported by grant funding, “now risk being seen as luxuries that are no longer affordable in an era of spending cuts.”[29] Utah State University, for example, closed its open courseware site in 2009 after its grant funding ran out.[30] The Hewlett Foundation cut back funding major OER projects in 2010, although it continues to provide some support for open education.[31] However, federal government support has recently increased, most visibly with the Department of Education’s deeply funded Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.[32] Several OER programs now solicit personal contributions and corporate donations. Individual campuses have also contributed resources to launch and maintain OER programs, beyond the intellectual capital of instructors and their courses: financial support (subvention) and in-kind work (media capture and editing, archiving, Web hosting, etc). Some, like MIT, internalize production and maintenance costs, seeing on- and off-campus benefits beyond financial return. In any case, ongoing economic pressures may lead some OER producers to seek new external supports, such as the Internet Archive.[33] At worst, they may scale back their work.


Permalink for this paragraph 0 [1] Roger C Schonfeld and Ross Housewright, Faculty Survey 2009 (ITHAKA S+R, 2010), http://www.ithaka.org/ithaka-s-r/research/faculty-surveys-2000-2009/faculty-survey-2009; Diane Harley, “Why Understanding the Use and Users of Open Education Matters,” in Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, ed. Toru Iiyoshi, M.S. Vijay Kumar, and John Seely Brown (The MIT Press, 2008), 197–211, http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11309.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [2] Diane Harley et al., Affordable and Open Textbooks: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Attitudes (UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education, 2010), 4, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1t8244nb.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [4] Joseph Hardin and Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, “Reviews of Current International OCW Surveys” (presented at the OCWC Global 2011: Celebrating 10 years of OpenCourseWare, Cambridge MA, May 4, 2011).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [5] Harley et al., Affordable and Open Textbooks: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Attitudes, 4.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [6] Judy Baker and Jacky Hood, “7 Things You Should Know About Open Textbook Publishing,” March 2011, http://www.educause.edu/Resources/7ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutOpenT/225383.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [7] Paul Stacey, “Overcoming Not-Invented-Here Syndrome – An OER Call to Action,” Paul Stacey, October 17, 2010, http://edtechfrontier.com/2010/10/17/overcoming-not-invented-here-syndrome-an-oer-call-to-action/.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [8] Wiley, Green, and Soares, Dramatically Bringing Down the Cost of Education with OER.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [9] Masterman and Wild, OER Impact Study: Research Report.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [11] Allen, A Cover to Cover Solution, 14.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [13] “OER Commons,” January 3, 2012, http://www.oercommons.org/.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [14] Harley et al., Affordable and Open Textbooks: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Attitudes.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [15] Allen, A Cover to Cover Solution.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [16] Nick Desantis, “Tablet Ownership Triples Among College Students,” Wired Campus (The Chronicle of Higher Education), March 14, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/tablet-ownership-triples-among-college-students/35764.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [17] Plotkin, Free to Learn Guide.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [18] U. M. Dholakia, W. J. King, and R. Baraniuk, What Makes an Open Education Program Sustainable? The Case of Connexions, CERI – Closed Expert Meeting on Open Educational Resources: Reports (OCED, 2006).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [19] Harley et al., Affordable and Open Textbooks: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Attitudes.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [20] Atkins, D.E., J.S. Brown, A.L. Hammond, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities. Creative Commons, 2007.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [21] “Interview with Michael Roy,” interview by Lisa Spiro, March 8, 2012.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [22] Margulies, Sinou, and Thille, Models of Open Educational Resources: OpenCourseWare, Sofia, and the Open Learning Initiative, 10.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [23] Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [24] “Why Donate?,” MIT OpenCourseWare, http://ocw.mit.edu/donate/why-donate/index.htm.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [25] Hafner, “Higher Education Reimagined With Online Courseware – Education Life.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [27] Keith Hampson, “The Search for Sustainable OER,” Higher Education Management, December 19, 2011, http://highereducationmanagement.wordpress.com/tag/open-educational-resources/.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [28] Spiro, “Interview with Pat Schoknecht.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [29] Taylor Walsh, “Open Courseware Initiatives and the Challenge of Sustainability,” EDUCAUSE Review, August 2011, http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume46/OpenCoursewareInitiativesandth/231834.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [30] Marc Parry, “Utah State U.’s OpenCourseWare Closes Because of Budget Woes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wired Campus, September 3, 2009, http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/utah-state-us-opencourseware-closes-because-of-budget-woes/7913.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [31] Walsh, Unlocking the Gates, 145, 148, 233–243.

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