Open Education: What Can K-12 Learn from Higher Ed.

By Katie Ash — October 18, 2012 3 min read
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Throughout the Open Education Conference, which is wrapping up on Thursday here in Vancouver, the focus of many sessions and many more attendees has been on how the open movement has affected higher education. But many of those post-secondary challenges fall squarely in line with the frustrations and challenges I hear from K-12 educators.

Nicole Allen, the Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) textbook advocate and director of the Make Textbooks Affordable project, presented Wednesday about the rising cost of textbooks and how open education resources can help to solve that problem. Seven out of 10 college students report not buying one or more of their required textbooks due to the high cost, she said. Her research also found that the average cost of an introductory textbook is $176, with specialized books costing much more.

Five years ago, said Allen, the problem was that only a handful of professional-grade open textbooks existed, but today there are over 100 to choose from, shifting the movement’s charge from creating and curating content to convincing faculty to actually adopt the open textbooks that are available for students.

While this presentation focused on higher education, “the textbook industries in [K-12 and higher education] are broken, but in different ways” said Allen, who added that open education resources have the potential to assuage challenges in both sectors.

In some cases, higher education and K-12 can also share content, and some of the policies that govern how open resources are used do overlap. But others, like the textbook adoption process, are very different, she said.

Later, in another session on Thursday morning, representatives from several universities in British Columbia led conversations about changing the culture in academia to engage administrators as well as faculty and community members in the open education movement. Several people in the audience, who identified themselves as members of post-secondary institutions, brought up key challenges in the open education movement, such as a lack of support and professional development for faculty members who may be unfamiliar with OERs.

“I’m not resistant to change, but I have something that works,” said Brooke Zimmers, a professor at Shoreline Community College outside of Seattle, referring to her use of proprietary textbooks. “I’m busy, and I don’t necessarily have time to go out hunting and pecking for [other resources.]”

Vilifying faculty members who do not immediately embrace OERs will not help those, like Zimmers, who may be hesitant to see the benefit of moving to open textbooks instead of traditional textbooks, she added

Members of the audience also recommended taking baby steps toward “open” rather than jumping right into the deep end. Starting by focusing on sharing information, even between faculty members within an institution, can be a good first step toward opening education, some suggested.

These conversations reflected many I’ve had with K-12 educators and administrators. As we’ve written about before, OERs may be free to use, but they are “free like a puppy,” meaning there are other costs associated, such as professional development to help train teachers and infrastructure needed to access the resources.

In addition, the push and pull of support and buy-in from both administrators (top-down) and teachers (bottom-up) I’ve seen in K-12 education was reflected in these higher-ed conversations, too. Presenters emphasized the need to get faculty members on board with the open education movement, but many faculty members also brought frustrations with resistant administrators. Having buy-in at both the administrative and classroom level is key to the success of the OER movement at both the post-secondary and K-12 level, presenters agreed.

While OER provides many benefits to both students and teachers—providing learning materials for free, allowing teachers to remix and personalize curricula, and increasing student motivation and engagement, to name a few—there is much left to be hashed out, such as how those who create these materials should be compensated, how to fund the “hidden costs” of OER, and how to create a welcoming atmosphere for OERs. It’s clear that this movement has progressed faster in higher education than it has in K-12, but many of the OER experts here believe there is a role for both K-12 and postsecondary institutions to play in conjunction with each other that can ultimately push the conversation for both sectors forward.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.