Meera Nair

students, food insecurity, OER

In Posts on August 31, 2015 at 7:25 pm

My last post focused on a very one-sided report bemoaning the fortunes (or lack thereof) of the educational publishing industry. That industry apparently needs our support in the form of continued high-priced payments. This, without regard for either developments in law or legitimate and innovative efforts on the part of the educational community to lighten the financial burden imposed on students, parents and taxpayers.

According to the report, without such an industry, our authors would no longer be able to support themselves. The trope of the starving author is a familiar one in the realm of copyright lobbying. Every expansion of copyright (beginning with its establishment in the 18th century) has included references to writers who needed copyright protection to survive. (Yet even in those days, not every writer agreed with publishers’ pronouncements on this matter.) If authors are still struggling after 300 years of relentless expansion of copyright’s ambit, perhaps copyright is neither the problem nor the solution.

Moreover, there is another segment of society where money is tight, or tighter still, and food insecurity is real. (Dietitians of Canada indicate that the main cause of food insecurity is poverty.) Year after year, the difficulties facing post-secondary students are covered in the press. Here is just a small sample of recent discussion:

Many factors play into student poverty, but the rising cost of education cannot be ignored as the principal driver. With tuition and housing as necessities, food is seen as optional. Citing Michael Waglay (coordinator for Beyond Campus Foodbanks) Rachel Grant writes: “the first campus food banks appeared in 1991 at the University of Alberta. Now, … there is a food bank on almost every campus.”

Also appearing on every campus are shelves upon shelves of very expensive textbooks. The educational publishing industry would have us believe that only they can produce such works. Open Education Resources (OER) demonstrates otherwise. Looking for an illustrative example that would have widespread use, I examined materials for pre-calculus. OpenStax’s contribution stands out, based as it is upon a thorough development and review process. A comprehensive book (1400+ pages), it is lucid in delivery and robust in its treatment of the subject. (To ensure a knowledgeable opinion, I placed it in front of my first guide in mathematics; a woman of 35 years’ post-secondary mathematics teaching experience, spanning two countries. Full disclosure – she is also my mother.)

OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University, with the support of many philanthropic organizations. Its goal is to offer high-quality textbooks which are free online or low-cost in print form. The array of institutions who have adopted OpenStax books is impressive, ranging from high schools and community colleges to exclusive preparatory schools and Ivy League universities.

Returning to my pursuit for pre-calculus learning materials, an informal survey of conventional offerings showed sticker prices beginning at the $150 mark and escalating quickly. With the option to reduce that cost to zero, or near zero, that saving alone could make a meaningful difference to a hungry student.

But there are barriers to the adoption of OER materials. It is not a trivial undertaking to rework an existing course to rely upon a different textbook. Students can only hope that sympathetic professors will consider such exertion worthwhile. Traditional teaching/research institutions could support both parties by recognizing such work as “service” (that component of duties essential to advancement of tenured and tenure-track alike). Yet another barrier is awareness; too many of the professoriate remain unaware that such works even exist. Finally, advanced courses or highly specialized areas are less likely to be served by OER at this time.

But barriers to some are opportunities for others. Institutions which support OER usage, or, better still, invest in OER development, can enjoy a competitive advantage among the student market. A success story that made the rounds of Creative Commons’ enthusiasts is that of Tidewater Community College (Virginia) which shifted an entire program of study to OER materials. Mike Palmedo recounted the early details in March 2014:

 Tidewater identified 21 courses and signed up faculty members to design the curriculum. They started with the desired outcomes for each of the courses, and then built the curriculum with OER materials that would meet those outcomes. Developing the curriculum took about 12 months. One year into the program, the early results are highly positive.

The initiative was not only about eliminating the prior price tag of $3679 for materials, it was also about improving teaching impact. Continuing the story, via an Inside Higher Education webinar this year, Cable Green (Director of Global Learning, Creative Commons) gave additional good news: better grades, higher rates of completion and increased student enrollment.

Closer to home, the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) is showing great leadership in the development of OER materials for their students, and is enjoying the attendant institutional benefits. Details were first presented at Open Education 2014 in Washington DC by Tannis Morgan, Associate Dean for the Centre of Teaching, Learning and Innovation at JIBC. Morgan emphasizes that not only is this effort “the right thing to do” but also that “being open has actually increased the bottom line.”

  1. Very informative, thanks Meera. While we all consider the positive impact of OER textbooks on students, I hadn’t considered the “books vs food” dilemma. I don’t think there is much difficulty for me in adopting an OER textbook. But there is tradition and change in PSEs is sluggish. What will happen to Bookstores and their staff? I know you once suggested that reduced textbook revenue could be captured in increased enrolment.

  2. […] Nair, Fair Duty Blog, Link (CC-BY)] My last post focused on a very one-sided report bemoaning the fortunes (or lack thereof) […]

  3. Thank you Richard – your involvement with OER is commendable (I hope your colleagues take note.) With respect to the challenge facing bookstores, David Wiley (Lumen) describes another need that bookstores could address: print-on-demand:. See http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3168
    While his data is based upon American events, there is room for optimism that Canadian campus bookstores could thrive with OER.

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