Open Educational Resources#
Open educational resources (OER) are just as the name implies: educational resources that are openly-available. In general, this means educational materials that are free for others to use to educate themselves, or to use in teaching others. Similar to free and open software, OER may be released under a variety of licenses, but they generally follow the same principles of freedom to use, adapt, and redistribute the materials to others with no or minimal restrictions. Common restrictions that might be put in place are prohibitions on commercial use, or a requirement of attribution (i.e., if you redistribute materials, you must include the name of the original creator(s)).
OERs are endorsed and supported by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. UNESCO recognizes the importance of OER in “building more open and inclusive knowledge societies”. The motivation for OER is similar in some ways to some of the reasons scientists may prefer to publish in open journals. Historically, a lot of educational materials, such as textbooks and educational software, have been produced by for-profit companies. Paying for these costs educators (be they teachers, schools, or school boards) money, and as a result limits the educational resources available to any given student. As you are likely aware, every public educational system in the world is challenged by limited budgets, which have to be distributed between many costs such as buildings, staff salaries, educational materials, and other things. These budgetary limitations necessarily impose limits on the amount of educational resources that any given student has access to, and in many cases on the quality of these materials. For example, children may be learning from grossly outdated textbooks because a school cannot afford to buy new ones. Or, a school may invest in a promising technology only to find that it doesn’t serve their needs as expected — but the funds are now gone and so unavailable to try an alternative technology. This is a problem in North American schools, but you can only imagine how much more of a problem it is in developing countries, that have far greater barriers to accessing quality educational materials.
As a university student, you have likely taken classes that required an expensive textbook. University is already expensive, and adding the cost of books on top of that can create real financial hardship for some students. Moreover, these textbooks often don’t feel like a great investment — they are often much more expensive than other kinds of books, and as soon as a course is done, the student often has no further use for them. While there are resale markets, publishers often release new editions on regular cycles (planned obsolescence) to ensure that they are able to maintain the flow of revenue. This is not to say that there is no benefit to textbooks (or other materials) produced and sold by publishers. Firstly, publishing and delivering hard copy materials obviously has expenses associated with it, and the quality of the paper, binding, and other aspects of academic textbooks is typically very high. The high prices also often reflect the relatively low volume of textbooks sold, relative to, say, popular fiction or self-help books. As well, textbook publishers provide a level of quality control of the information. Although textbooks are not typically peer-reviewed the way scientific journal articles are, the authors and/or publishers usually do solicit input from peers on the content, writing style, readability, and pedagogical features of textbooks. As well, textbooks are professionally copy-edited and produced to ensure high quality of the finished product. Moreover, textbook authors are typically professors at universities who are concerned about their reputations, so they strive to make their work as high quality and accurate as possible. Authors also receive revenue from their books. Although this revenue rarely, if ever, reflects anything remotely approaching a reasonable hourly wage for the amount of work it took to write the book, anticipated revenue can have an incentivizing effect on the quality of the material: if the book stinks, no one will use it, and you won’t make any money at all, and the publisher won’t ask you to develop further editions.
I write this as someone who has authored a textbook, Research Methods for Cognitive Neuroscience and published it with a mainstream academic publisher, Sage. While I am, clearly, sensitive to the challenges of accessibility that this publishing model imposes, I went that route for a few reasons. Firstly, to be honest, the idea of an OER textbook did not occur to me when I first considered the idea. The incentive to write the book came from a representative from Sage. Reps from publishing companies routinely meet with professors to find out what they’re teaching, and see if they can get the prof to adopt a textbook that they publish. In my case, I bemoaned the lack of any textbook for a course I was teaching, to which the rep suggested I write my own. He then mentored me through the process of preparing a formal proposal to the publisher, which was peer-reviewed by others in the field. This gave the publisher confidence that there was a market for the book (and me the reassurance that other people besides my students would benefit from it), and also gave me some input on improving the book. Having committed to a publishing contract also provided me with incentive to actually write the darn thing — and even with a contract, and deadlines, it took me 6 years from the initial conversation to the book’s actually being published.