Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Barriers to implementing OERs

Barriers to implementing OERs
Council of Alberta University Students
20 November 2019, Edmonton

I recently had the opportunity to discuss Open Educational Resources (OERs) with student leaders from across Alberta. Their interest in OERs focuses on the cost savings. I was asked to discuss barriers to OER implementation.
Two quick notes to start.
  1. I was asked by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations to talk about the barriers to OER adoption from a faculty perspective because I’ve written and adopted three OER textbooks in my courses. That said, just to be clear—I’m here as a professor and my views are not necessarily CAFA’s view.
  2. I’m also going to use the terms OER and textbook interchangeably. I acknowledge there are other forms of OERs than just textbook analogs. But, for the most part, OERs essentially serve in place of textbooks, so I’m going to use the terms interchangeably.
So why is OER adoption so slow? I see basically three main issues.

First, in my experience, there are no OERs available for most courses (that is changing but slowly). And the OERs that are available tend to be a mixed bag in terms of their quality and suitability. For example, I teach an intro HR course. There are OERs but they often tend to be niche-focused (e.g., introduction to HR in the tourism sector). And many are pretty mickey-mouse, which may create accreditation problems. So I don’t use them, even though I would like to use an OER in that course.

The limited number of OERs reflects that there are few to no resources available to write and produce OERs. While OERs can be cheaper to produce than commercial textbooks, they still do cost money. Right now, post-secondary institutions almost entirely rely upon commercial texts because these texts externalize the cost of production to students. If we’re going to want to increase the breadth or number of OERs, then we need to address the economics of it. And, bluntly, someone needs to fund it.

And that doesn’t just mean one-time funding. Commecial texts are attractive to profs and institutions not just because they are “free”, but also because they are periodically updated at no cost to the academics or the institutions. If there are few to no resources to write new OERs, then there are even fewer resources to update OERs periodically. This is more urgent in some disciplines than others, but producing a one-off book with no prospect of updates makes profs reluctant to use the book. Again, this comes back to funding.

This is one of the OERs I’ve written. It is a health and safety textbook. It costs $30 in paper and is a free as a pdf. This is the main commercial health and safety textbook. It costs $150—five times the costs. Now a certain amount of that difference is profit for the publisher and royalties for the author. And a certain amount of the difference has to do with production costs—my OER is very bare bones: black and white, text heavy, no pictures or other pretty filler material.

But, at the end of the day, both books have certain sunk costs associated with writing, editing, peer-review, and production. My OER cost about $40,000 that we got as a government grant. That was $30 grand for 52 days of course release to write plus $10 grand for production costs. Both of those amounts under-represent the true cost of production—my institution absorbed those extra costs. I would guess they were in the neighbourhood of $25k. So this one book cost about $65k to create.

A second OER that I wrote I did without any funding. I found the time by displacing my own research (which entails a certain career cost to me) and I used my own money to cover some of the production costs (the remainder were covered by institution). I’m currenting mooting writing an OER HR textbook, but it simply requires money and time that I don’t at present have.

A second issue is that most OERs are digital products—which is why they can be provided for free. My experience is that most profs and a large proportion of students don’t like electronic textbooks. I’ve actually moved away from commercial etexts in two courses because I got tired of the complaining from students.

These complaints generally swirl around etexts being hard to read and hard to annotate. E-texts (even ones stored in the cloud) can also disappear or become inaccessible at the end of or in the middle of a course. And there is some evidence that students retain less of what they read using etexts, when compared to print books. These are not trivial drawbacks associated with digital OERs.

One option is to provide print on demand books or a choice between a print and an e-text. These are good solutions but they entail additional complexity on the production and distribution sides. Institutional bookstores may be reluctant to engage multimodal offerings, especially since OERs are about minimizing cost (and thus drive down bookstore revenues). Using alternative distribution channels dramatically increases the hassle for profs. We use campus bookstores not because they are awesome or fun to deal with, but because they are easy: send in an ISBN and textbooks appear.

A third issue is that OERs are less attractive to instructors. Most commercial books have websites, canned assignments, lecture notes, power points, and test banks. They may even have pro-programmed learning management systems that handle all of the hassle of assignment marking and grade tracking and just export a list of final grades at the end. So commercial texts (like this Kelloway one) is basically plug and play for an instructor.

By contrast, an OER is likely to have none of this material because even basic stuff (like multiple-choice tests) is very laborious to create and, of course, there is no money for OERs. So profs who think about OERs are also thinking about the additional work they are creating for themselves if the adopt an OER.

So, to summarize, the basic barrier is funding related: OERs are not free to create and maintain but their nature (as free to students) means there is no obvious revenue stream to fund their creation and maintenance. A secondary issue is that professors and institutions may have a vested interested in using commercial texts that are respectively related to workload and revenue. And, of course, students don’t necessarily like digital texts.

So what can be done?

Basically there are two challenges: creating adequate OERs and getting profs to adopt them.

Creating is probably the easier issue to deal with. There won’t be an appreciable increase in OERs without additional funding. So where could money come from? Well, you could get new cash from the government, you could get institutions to divert cash from some other project, or you could come up with it from your members. The latter is probably the most likely to happen

Getting profs to adopt OERs is probably harder. One pathway would be to find the 20 highest enrollment courses at your institution, look for OERs for them and, if your find them, go meet with the profs and show them. Explain the cost implications for students and ask them to use them. If they say no, ask why not (as that might inform what you do next).

An easier but likely less effective option is to ask the government to include a performance measure in its new funding model that measures of accessibility based upon the percentage of courses that contain OERs. This might incent some institutional behavioural change. It also gives you a pretext for later on asking the government to specifically fund the creation of OERs.

-- Bob Barnetson

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