This post is second in a series of updates on recent project progress for our academic partners, following a recent project meeting on 20 January. During that meeting, we were keen on identifying priority areas for developing the cascade framework and issues related to OER release are a strong contender. On a related note, as they are finalising their plans for OER release, some of our partners have expressed an interest in learning more about open textbooks after stumbling a number of those in US-based repositories such as MERLOT and Connexions. Thus this blog post explores what feels like uncharted territory within the UK OER programme; it also accompanies a leaflet on open textbooks we have recently posted on our slideshare account (obviously, as all other documents released by the project team the leaflet is an open educational resource itself!).
During the conversations we had at the project meeting, our partners mentioned that while their students appreciated the value of OERs to their learning, they complained that in some instances the OERs seemed to duplicate the content of the books they had to pay for. we started wondering then about the relationship between OERs and the set book and a bunch of google clicks later came upon some fascinating debates in the context of US higher education, where the cost of textbooks has long been an area of concern for students, professors, and administrators. Open textbooks, that is, openly-licensed books offered online by its author(s) or through a non-profit or commercial open-licensed publisher, are viewed as a potential solution to the ever-increasing prices and the hegemony of the publishing industry. Open textbooks, usually created under a Creative Commons license, provide users with a set book which is editable so that academic staff can customize content in response to changes in the curriculum or individual students’ needs, including accessibility-related needs. Some open textbook models, such as for instance Flat World Knowledge, an open content commercial publisher, allow users to choose between free online access or low-cost alternate formats such as print, audio, or study aids accompanying the textbook (see the leaflet produced by C-SAP on open textbooks for an overview of existing platforms and business models currently in use).
While at the moment open textbooks are just one of possible avenues for OER release to explore in the context of the cascade project (and in the end we might decide this is a road less travelled by which we do not particularly want to follow), the lessons learnt from open textbooks projects are certainly of interest with regard to the larger questions being asked within the programme. In particular, the Open Access Textbooks Grant Project has produced resources on recognizing and rewarding faculty digital scholarly work which might be relevant in light of similar discussions on reward and recognition in the context of UK Open Educational Resources programme. For instance, our University Centre at Blackburn College partners have suggested that within HE in FE institutions OERs could function as a valid alternative to publishing in a situation where producing peer-reviewed research is often not a feasible option because of a huge teaching workload. Open textbooks in particular could help recognise the contributions of HE in FE colleagues to the field of teaching and potentially help them enhance their personal and scholarly reputation. By extension, such textbooks could also be used by universities as a tool of differentiation and a means to gain a competitive edge as a teaching focussed institutions, a theme which came up at recent UK OER programme meeting. As Helen Beetham argues in her blog post, in the current financial climate, institutions will be keen to demonstrate that the university experience is worth the hefty tuition fees and that it is substantially different from the experience at comparable universities. A more in-depth exploration of open textbooks, which seem to be positioned OER movement and commercial publishers, could certainly add to the debates in the UK context on the relationship between OERs and higher education institutions as well as business models for developing OERs.