Students and teachers alike recognise that the learning landscape has shifted significantly with an abundance of learning materials available freely online. Previous educational systems, based on the expert knowledge residing in the teacher alone, and scarcity of educational opportunities have – in many parts of the world – been overturned by a democratisation of access to knowledge and the tools to create new knowledge. Whilst platforms such as TED, YouTube, Vimeo and Khan Academy provide free access to some of the leading minds globally, on almost any topic, the legality of reusing, sharing and even altering the content to suit your local area is a fraught space that leaves many teachers lamenting the complexities of copyright. This is where open educational resources (OER) plays an integral role in allowing more liberal, legal sharing of resources to reduce barriers to education, provide cost-effective and high-quality resources for learners and teachers, and create new opportunities for student learning. The following paragraphs describe specific instances of teachers and tertiary-level academics applying OER to learning and teaching.
In a primary school in regional Australia, the teachers feel isolated from practice, and the budget allocation usually means that difficult choices need to be made about expenditure. Class sets of learning resources tend to be expensive and educational licensing on materials means that most resources (both text and video) have a very narrow definition of sharing and distribution. Consistent access in the classroom (and at home) is predicated on reliable, high-speed internet access; some of the vendors only offer streaming options for content, so download limits for both the school and students are a major barrier. In particular, maths support has been flagged as a priority. Some of the teachers have found Khan Academy, a site that offers a range of video tutorials for maths at all levels of study, from K-12 to tertiary studies. Those videos have a Creative Commons (CC) licence and can be downloaded, stored on the school computers and distributed via USB by the school. Over the course of several weeks, the teachers identify core materials, download the materials for use at the school and, due to the open licence, can send the videos home with students. The students can see each step of the maths concepts, can replay any part of the tutorial as many times as they wish and can share the videos legally for revision among their peers.
A nurse practitioner had just started teaching undergraduate students at an Australian university. The current course needed redevelopment and he was told that many students indicated in their feedback that access to the textbook is a major barrier to participating in the course. The library had tried to keep multiple copies on short-term loan in an attempt to alleviate the issue, but ultimately not all students could participate equitably in the second-year required course. Deciding that inclusivity and equity are not only drivers for higher education but his profession, the lecturer decided to search for alternatives. Through the BC Campus Open Textbook collection, he found a textbook that is free and open to redistribute, revise, repurpose, remix and reuse. However, the standards referenced in the text are relevant to North America, not Australia. The lecturer provided a core set of readings for the students to establish the major concepts of the course, and then asked students in their assessment to take a section of the open text, revise it for the Australian environment and submit. Those students who meet the standards of the assessment criteria can re-release their revised chapters as a new book for other Australian courses to use. These students thereby become contributors to the knowledge marketplace.
A Learning Support Unit at a TAFE is repeatedly challenged by the time required to create resources, but the vocational sector has recently been providing professional learning about CC licensing. One of the team leaders approached teachers throughout the institution and collaboratively planned authentic assessment that will allow students to actively support their peers. The animation and video production course leaders both agreed that their students will work with the Learning Support staff as clients to develop a brief, create resources and then revise the resources based on feedback. The students retain the ownership of the resources and the right to be attributed as the authors, but the open licence allows them to share the resources freely. These learning resources become part of the students’ ePortfolio for prospective employers to demonstrate real-world skills, and the TAFE now has a suite of resources designed by students, for students.
These are only a few examples of the types of transformative and authentic practices that have the potential to not only reduce the barriers and cost of education at all levels, but to make education a participatory, active experience that has impact on communities based on a ‘common wealth’ of knowledge. In the midst of government reports signalling under-representation in education by designated societal groups and rising costs of textbooks and other subscription-based resources, educators are considering alternatives to expensive, outdated notions of knowledge control. Exacerbating the situation are antiquated copyright laws. One of the earliest copyright laws was subtitled ‘a law for the enhancement of learning’ and the irony of this statement in contemporary society is not lost on educators. Applying to use, copy and distribute proprietary resources can be confusing, complex and costly. Furthermore, whilst educators can access the research output of their peers easily, accessing learning and teaching content is often considerably harder.
Open Educational Resources (OER) are the cornerstone of this practice.
Shared freely and openly on a global scale, Open Educational Resources are digitised (but not only digital) resources that are created for learning and teaching, and bear an open licence, such as CC.
These licences exist within the legal structure of countries (Australia recognises the legal legitimacy of the licences at the federal level) alongside copyright. The major difference though is that a CC licence explicitly states upfront what types of use are permitted – other users do not need to contact the author of the resource as long as their usage is described under the licence.
A photography teacher needed a range of images as sparks for discussion in class about the use of light. In the past, the lecturer has used books from the library and passed them around the class during the activity, but with increasing numbers of online students, this simply does not provide equivalency of experience for the entire cohort. Instead, the lecturer uses Flickr, setting the search parameters to only include images that can be reused under a CC licence. From the results, she is able to select those that state other users can reuse any of the images, provided that attribution of the photographer is given. In a relatively short amount of time, the lecturer has a small portfolio of images (attributed to show the original author and linking back to the site) for students to use. As they are now hosted online in the learning management system, both on-campus and online students share a common pool of resources and can discuss them either synchronously in streamed tutorials, or asynchronously in a forum.
Meanwhile, a high school science teacher planned to introduce final year students to research concepts in the discipline, but needed some journal articles to do so. Using Google Scholar, she unearthed a wealth of recent literature, but access was denied due to a pay wall – often asking as much as one hundred dollars per article. Turning to colleagues on Twitter, she asked for advice and a friend from university provided a link to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The site provides access to tens of thousands of journal articles that are published under a CC licence as ‘open access’. They are free to access, download, copy and distribute. After a few hours, the teacher was able to curate a small collection of articles for the students to use in learning activities this term.
OER are about free and open access to knowledge, providing learners with quality resources at little to no cost, and creating new and flexible choices to support both face-to-face and online learning. OER embraces the teacher’s role as a specialist curator, using his/her discipline knowledge to collect meaningful, high-quality resources that support student learning. However, OER also acknowledges that, as access to information and digital tools increases, students are creators and co-creators of knowledge and resources that can advance understandings. In the classroom, OER offers an alternative to high-cost, bandwidth-intensive resources governed by restrictive subscription contracts by instead using licences that convey rights and responsibilities in ‘plain language’ terms. The choice then is how one leverages these resources to create stimulating learning experiences that engage all students – not just those who can afford traditional education.