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The lack of universal access to effective educational resources remains a global problem. But, says Cable Green, the good news is that open education is increasing access, lowering costs and improving student learning.

By Cable Green

We live in an age of information abundance where everyone, for the first time in history, can access all the knowledge they wish. The key to this sea-change in education opportunity is Open Educational Resources (OER), freely available materials that can be legally downloaded, edited and shared to better serve all students.

Cable Green, Director of Open Education at Creative Commons.

CC David Kindler

For the last twenty years, the educational resources – textbooks, videos, courses, degree programmes, etc. – we use to teach people how to read and write, learn physics and think critically have been "born-digital". Even though we still use printed copies and employ non-internet delivery of learning materials, there exists a digital file. Thanks to the internet, inexpensive disc space and cloud computing, we can now store, distribute, and make copies of digital educational resources for the marginal cost of zero.

But how can educators share digital learning content without violating copyright law – how can they share legally?

The key distinguishing characteristic of an OER is its open copyright licence and the legal permissions the licence grants the public to use, modify and share it. If an educational resource is not clearly marked as being in the public domain or having an open licence, it is not an OER.

The most common way to openly license copyrighted education resources – making them OER   – is to add a Creative Commons (CC) licence to the resource. These licences are standardized, free-to-use, open copyright licences that have already been applied to more than 1.2 billion copyrighted works across nine million websites, according to the 2016 State of the Commons Report. When authors add a CC licence to their work, they keep their copyright and share their work with the public, for free, under the terms and conditions they choose.

Leveraging the full power of OER

It is worth noting that “open” is not the same as “free”. All OER can be freely accessed, but not all free content is OER. Many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, are free but not open. While access to the MOOC content might be free, the MOOC is only considered OER if its contents are openly licensed or in the public domain. This becomes critically important if you want to translate a MOOC into different languages and/or modify it for a local context to meet the needs of your students.

OER can be freely retained (keep a copy), reused (use as is), revised (adapt, adjust, modify), remixed (mash up different content to create something new), and redistributed (share copies with others) without breaking copyright law. Of course, if we want to leverage the full power of OER, educators and students also need access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure – computers, mobile devices and internet connectivity, in all spaces for all people.

In summary, OER are possible because: 1) educational resources are digital (most OER are “born-digital,” though OER can be made available to students in both digital and printed formats) and digital resources can be stored, copied and distributed for near-zero cost; 2) the internet makes it simple for anyone to share digital content; and 3) Creative Commons open licences make it simple and legal to keep one’s copyright and legally share educational resources with the world.

What difference does OER make? 

When colleges and universities shift to OER, they enable a series of positive education changes. The first thing that happens is that equitable access to educational resources goes up. Every single student can have access to all of the educational resources that have been designed for them to be successful in the class on day one. This might sound obvious, but even in the United States, two-thirds of college and university students don’t buy the textbooks prescribed for their classes because they cannot afford them.

The second positive impact is all students get access to relevant, contextualized education content that has been designed for them. A professor in Mumbai can download an openly licensed textbook that has been shared by the University of Barcelona, translate it into Hindi, and update the book with examples that will appeal to her or his students.

Third, learning outcomes go up or stay the same, while price falls to near zero. When all students in a class have access to all of the required educational resources on day one, they succeed.  A journal-published analysis of more than 16,000 students at public institutions showed that students using open materials perform as well, if not better, than their peers using traditional course materials (Fischer, Hilton, Robinson, and Wiley: A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 2015).

Fourth, it has been observed that course completion rates go up. In a controlled application of OER at Tidewater Community College in Virginia, US, students utilizing OER resources in a variety of course formats fared up to 11% better in both course completion and achievement. (Fischer, Hilton, Wiley and Willaims: Maintaining momentum toward graduation: OER and the course throughput rate, The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 2016).

Students remain and succeed in courses that provide them access to all the educational resources they need to prosper. Because more students are completing their courses, time-to-degree also drops. With OER, education institutions help students move through their educational opportunities with greater speed and success – a more effective public investment.

Fifth, once we have OER in our learning spaces, students and teachers can shift to open education practices – “collaborative practices which include the creation, use and reuse of OER and pedagogical practices employing participatory technologies, peer learning, knowledge creation and sharing, and empowerment of learners” (Catherine Cronin : Openness and praxis: exploring the use of open educational practices in higher education, The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 2017). According to Cronin, students become co-producers, generators and creators of knowledge; they can create, update and improve OER as they learn.

Policy support needed

One way governments can support open education is to adopt a simple policy – require publicly-funded educational resources are openly licensed.

Open education licensing policies insert open licensing requirements into existing funding systems (e.g., grants, contracts or other agreements) that create educational resources, thereby making the content OER, and shifting the default on publicly-funded educational resources from “closed” to “open”. This is a particularly strong education policy argument – if the public pays for education resources, the public should have the right to access and use those resources at no additional cost and with the full spectrum of legal rights necessary to modify the OER to meet their local needs.

This sounds obvious, but it is not the rule. Unfortunately, it is almost always the case that publicly- funded educational resources are commercialized in such a way that access is restricted to those who are willing to pay for them a second time. Why should a nation’s citizens be required to pay a second time for an education resource they’ve already paid for?

Governments, foundations, and education institutions can and should implement open education licensing policies by requiring open licences on the educational resources produced with their funding. Strong open licensing policies make open licensing mandatory and apply a clear definition for open licence, ideally using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence that grants full reuse rights, provided the original author is attributed.

The good news is that open education policies are happening. In June 2012, UNESCO convened a World Open Education Resources Congress at its Headquarters, and released the 2012 Paris OER Declaration, which included a call for governments to “encourage the open licensing of educational materials produced with public funds”. I am pleased to say that many governments have followed this recommendation.

In conclusion, if we want OER to go mainstream, if we want curated sets of OER for all grade levels, in all subjects, in all languages, customized to meet local needs; if we want significant funding available for the creation, adoption and continuous updating of OER – then we need (1) universal awareness of and systematic support for OER, and (2) a broad adoption of open education licensing policies. When all educators are passionate about free and open access to their educational resources, when we change the rules on the money, when the default on all publicly-funded educational resources is “open” and not “closed”, we will live in a world where everyone can attain all the education they desire.

With this article, the UNESCO Courier marks the 2nd World Open Educational Resources Congress in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in September 2017.  

Cable Green

Cable Green (USA) is Director of Open Education at Creative Commons (CC), a global non-profit that helps anyone share their knowledge and creativity with simple, legal permissions to build a more equitable, accessible and innovative world. CC works with communities around the world to create a vibrant, usable commons powered by collaboration and gratitude.