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Do Open Educational Resources Increase Efficiency?

Timothy Vollmer, September 9th, 2010

One of the questions people often ask about Open Educational Resources is “do they really increase efficiency?” Creative Commons has worked with many OER innovators, and their stories indicate that it does. We thought it would be useful to gather pointers to some of these examples. Please read on, and leave a comment with other great examples of how CC-enabled OER can increase efficiency for teachers, students and self-learners. Note of course that increasing efficiency is only one benefit of OER.

Negotiating permissions on the web

As a baseline, CC-licensed OER increase efficiency overall because it helps clarify user rights and responsibilities from the start. Copyright law rewards the authors of original works with a bundle of rights for a fixed period of time. Generally, a work cannot be shared or adapted without the permission of the rights holder (in the U.S., there are limitations and exceptions that temper the exclusive rights of the copyright holder–for example, fair use). Materials that remain under all rights reserved copyright require a potential user to ask permission first. The rights permissions process is usually long, difficult, and expensive. Solving the permissions problem is one reason Creative Commons came to exist in the first place–CC licenses let authors mark their creative works with the freedoms the creator wants it to carry. Creative Commons helps lower the transaction costs associated with using and sharing creativity on the Internet.

Even if educators want to share their teaching materials, if the rights are not clear to the end user, the resources will be used less, or not at all. To enable creative, innovative, and legal downstream use and remix of educational resources, clarity is essential. Creative Commons licenses are specifically designed to be easy to apply and simple for creators and users to understand.

The human-readable deed simplifies the terms of each license into a few universal icons and non-technical language, making it easy for teachers and students to understand right away how they can use the educational resource. The lawyer-readable legal text has been vetted by a global team of legal experts. The machine-readable code enables search and discovery of the educational content via search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and others.

Search and Discovery

The findability of quality educational content online is one of the fundamental challenges for teachers and students today. Properly licensed open educational resources can help users find content that they know they can use, customize, and reshare. Many existing search services integrate licensing information so users can filter for content that is licensed under Creative Commons licenses. CC licensing information is integrated with sites such as Google, Yahoo!, Flickr, Fotopedia, Jamendo, Blip.tv, Vimeo, Open Clip Art Library, and Wikimedia Commons. Other websites host (or point to) open educational resources–DiscoverEd, Connexions, CK-12, Flat World Knowledge, Curriki, OER Commons, and others.

Translations and Accessibility

OER can increase efficiency when materials are published under a license that permits the creation of derivative works (all Creative Commons licenses that do not contain the NoDerivaties (ND) condition allow this). OER can be translated into other languages and transformed into alternate formats–such as for display on mobile devices–more easily than materials published under all rights reserved copyright. MIT OpenCourseWare uses the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (BY-NC-SA). Nearly 800 MIT OCW courses have been translated into other languages, all without needing to ask permission from the copyright holder.

Bookshare is the world’s largest accessible online library for persons with print disabilities. Bookshare was awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Education aimed at creating the first accessible versions of open digital textbooks. U.S. Copyright law permits some authorized entities to make accessible copies of books–and permits particular authorized disabled persons to access these vetted versions. This access is incredibly important, but the exception is limited, and does not apply for users outside of the United States. Open textbooks are low hanging fruit if they are released under a license that permits the creation of derivative works, because these can be more easily converted into accessible formats, such as audio and Braille refresh. No extra permissions costs have to be incurred or royalties paid for these adaptations to take place.

Customization and Affordability

OER can increase efficiency for teachers because they can be customized, easily updated, and oftentimes developed less expensively. Chuck Severance, a clinical professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, was able to publish a textbook in 11 days because he remixed an existing book. The remixed book Python for Informatics: Exploring Information, is a remix based on the openly licensed book Think Python: How to Think like a Computer Scientist. Students are able to take advantage of the University Library’s Espresso Book Machine to print on-demand copies for approximately $10. Python for Informatics is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) license.

Education publisher Flat World Knowledge is a commercial textbook publisher that incorporates Creative Commons licensing into the core of their business model. Flat World Knowledge offers free and customizable online access to their textbooks, all available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA) license. If users want a physical copy of the book, he or she can order it from Flat World, usually for under $50. Flat World Knowledge is competitive with traditional publishers from the get-go, hiring quality authors, peer-reviewing texts, and professionally editing content. Flat World Knowledge recently released information that 800 colleges will utilize their open textbooks this year, saving 150,000 students $12 million or more in textbook expenses. Affordability of educational materials, especially textbooks, is an increasing concern for students and their families. According to a widely-cited 2005 GAO report, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation over the last 20 years; Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) suggest the increase is closer to 4X over roughly the same time period.

During the summer of 2007, the Virginia Department of Education realized their high school physics textbook wasn’t working – it was out of date and did not include information about state of the art scientific advancements. With various stakeholders from both the private and public sectors, the Secretaries of Technology and Education developed an open physics textbook under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA) license. The goals of the textbook development project were to provide all state physics teachers with up-to-date physics texts with emerging content, to create a database where content could be centrally located, to determine how the value of the textbook could be measured, and to decide whether the project was worth replicating for other subject areas. The book was developed and delivered to students within six months, 6 to 10 times faster than the 3 to 5 years officials were told would be necessary to develop a similar book under the traditional model.

Summing up

The Internet and digital technologies have transformed how people learn. Educational resources are no longer static and scarce, but adaptable and widely available, allowing educational institutions, teachers, and learners to actively use, build upon, and share Open Educational Resources. OER enables teachers and students to find the content they know they can use, remix, and reshare–legally. OER helps address problems associated with language and accessibility, and empowers teachers to deliver customized, relevant content to learners, supporting individualized learning and student achievement. Engaging with the global OER community can help save time and money. These are just a few of the ways that Open Educational Resources helps increase efficiency. Please help us out by providing more examples in the comments, or add projects to our Case Studies.

3 Responses to “Do Open Educational Resources Increase Efficiency?”

  1. jmgilliot says:

    Thank you for all those very interesting examples.
    I just translated this article in french and released it on my own blog : http://tipes.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/des-ressources-educatives-libres-pour-etre-plus-efficace/

    Hope, it will help to foster OER in french community.

  2. Thank you jmgilliot.

    Merci beaucoup!

  3. Kristen says:

    What a fantastic article, I really enjoyed it.