Education technology consultant Karen Fasimpaur sounds like a revolutionary when she gets fired up talking about the potential of open educational resources (OER), the textbooks and other educational tools made available as free downloads or interactive Web experiences.
"We have an opportunity to take back the curriculum!" she told educators at last week's SXSWedu event. "What if we took the $5 billion annually spent on textbooks and invested that in teachers and their work?"
The revolution might not be that total, but it is happening. Fasimpaur, the principal of the education technology consulting firm K12 Handhelds, was talking mostly about OER applied to K-12. However, open resources are just as much of a force in higher education and are one of the underpinnings of massive open online courses (MOOCs).
As with open-source software, there can be legitimate questions of whether you get what you pay for when you pay nothing for the products of the OER movement. The first instinct of the commercial publishers of textbooks and other educational materials has been to dismiss OER products as low quality, but even they are having to change their tune. With philanthropic organizations dedicated to lowering the cost of education providing funding, several non-profit organizations are now providing the peer review and editorial resources necessary for academic respectability. These include Rice University's OpenStax College andCK-12 Foundation for primary education, both of which release materials under a Creative Commons license that lets the materials be freely downloaded and remixed as needed to meet the needs of a particular class.Khan Academy videos also are published under Creative Commons, although under a variant that restricts commercial use.
Open education is very much in the air this week -- which happens to be Open Education Week. On Monday, Wiley announced a partnership with OpenStax to create a college biology product that combines OpenStax textbook materials with Wiley's interactive learning tools. The recently announced Amplify Tabletfor K-12 schools also comes pre-loaded with a generous helping of OER materials, including CK12's FlexBooks and Khan Academy videos.
Fasimpaur thinks the current curriculum shakeup caused by the Common Core State Standards Initiativepresents an opportunity "and we should seize it to do things differently."
"Districts all over the country right now are thinking about new curriculum and where to go next," Fasimpaur said. Her fear is that educators will settle on a new set of traditional, proprietary textbooks aligned with the new curriculum standards, "and will go about doing business as usual."
Fasimpaur also made a connection to the maker movement, saying instruction can go beyond the textbook to creating things with Legos, or wood, or storytelling. "When we create, hack, and play, whether digital things or real, we're learning about creating, not just consuming things," she said. Used properly, these instructional tactics can lead to "deeper learning in 21st century skills like collaborating and creating."
"As teachers, we can also make things -- we can create powerful learning experiences, and I think we can make things that are better than what has been purchased in the past," Fasimpaur said.
In higher education, OER owes a lot to the pioneering work of MIT, which introduced its MIT OpenCourseWare website in 2002 and by 2007 put its entire curriculum online, free of charge.
Two major sources of funding for OpenStax and many other OER products are the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which coined the term "open educational resources" in a 2002 report, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other philanthropic partners for OpenStax College include the Twenty Million Minds Foundation and the Maxwell Foundation.
"In OER 1.0, you had early adopters who were willing to put up with a lot of pain," Harris said. "The material may not be vetted and may not be high quality. For OER 2.0, you want something more like a mainstream model." That means making OER materials easier to find and more convenient to work with for instructors who are not necessarily techies. Also, where the authors of OER 1.0 materials were typically volunteers, Harris said OER 2.0 drives up quality standards by finding the money to pay authors and reviewers -- albeit under a non-profit model that supports the release of the content under an open license.
This philanthropic slant doesn't stop OpenStax from forming commercial partnerships. Although Wiley is the first commercial textbook partner, OpenStax College also has worked with Amazon.com, which distributes paper versions of the textbooks (about $75 including shipping for College Physics), or produces $4.99 iBook editions for students who want the downloadable text optimized to read on an iPad.
The Web page for the OpenStax College Physics textbook also points students and their professors to commercially produced interactive study materials from Sapling Learning and The Expert TA. Sapling Learning CEO James Caras said his firm can also play something like the role that Red Hat does for Linux, the open-source operating system. "We can take care of some of the things that are difficult for non-profits to do," he said. "We're in right next to publisher's sales reps talking to faculty about OpenStax."
The partnership allows OpenStax College to focus on developing its textbooks while "Sapling can be maniacal about providing the best problem solving practice," Caras said. Sapling also provides support and training resources for the effective use of OER materials, he said.