A new and more accessible source of education

Open Educational Resources is a new and developing way for students to access free tools for educational purposes. OER exists as tools available to students and professors that are freely available for use, distribution and alteration. This includes everything from textbooks to homework software to VR software for nurses. This software is developed by professors or other developers either through various programs or of their own accord.

Marrisa Petrich of the UW Tacoma Library explained the many advantages, along with the many challenges, facing the growth of OER.

An incentivizing advantage of OER is the price tag associated with it. Because it is open-sourced, it is entirely free for anyone to use, which means students can access it for free as opposed to traditional textbooks that often come with prices up to $300. During the era of COVID-19, the ability to access textbooks through the library has become limited. Physical distribution is not possible, due both to the fact it is such a high traffic item and the loan periods are so short. 

Electronic options as a solution are not cheap. Instead, as an example provided by Petrich, one textbook which costs $83.50 in print costs instead $1,050 to digitally license. 

Course codes are another area that students tend to pay a large price, ranging anywhere from $25 to $75, which often presents a serious barrier for some students. 

“Students who are buying a textbook can buy the textbook, they can rent the textbook, they can get the textbook from the library, they can share a textbook with a friend to split that cost,” Petrich said. “They have a lot more choices to lower that cost for them. A course code, they have no choices. You have to get it or do no work.” 

OER also allows any products to be altered at discretion. This means, for example, textbooks can be altered to better represent the class. An environmental science textbook can shift to use all examples from the Puget Sound, or a sociology textbook to better reflect the class makeup, Petrich explained. The flexibility allows for better versatility amongst professors who may be looking to use a particular text but finds it doesn’t meet all of their requirements. 

Hurdles exist with OER however, but Petrich is working hard to address these concerns. One of the most predominant issues remaining is exposure; many people have either no familiarity or an outdated one with the concept. While ten years ago there might have not been much available that was open source, times have changed, and many professors who may have previously dismissed it due to lack of options have yet to give it a second glance. 

As of now, math and the sciences have gotten the most attention in OER, but Petrich hopes for that to change. However, without funding or recognition, it is hard to do. Currently, her work relies heavily on procuring grants, and so far she has not been able to obtain one that extends beyond the year, meaning each year she has to find a new grant to ensure funding makes its way into the program. 

Academics, such as professors and library staff, can also be hesitant to take the time to produce OERs due to the lack of recognition. Often professors who have constructed OERs do not receive proper recognition in regards to tenure for having spent the time to produce OERs, so they opt to focus their time elsewhere. 

“Making sure faculty get appropriate time and recognition within their jobs to do this. So one way to do this is to make it a part of the tenure and promotion process,” Petrich said. “When faculty apply for tenure if they have put a lot of work into adapting a textbook to their course and making it just right for their students and it’s got all of these local examples and its using language was very socially inclusive and they did all of these great things. Making sure that labor is recognized by the tenure board helps justify that time.” 

Funding is another challenge, but, Petrich said there are a few options in obtaining enough funding:

“States can offer money for people to produce or to adopt OER … The federal government can, or the university can. All of these models have been tried.”