Washington -- Open-education efforts like the free lecture materials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and producing free online textbooks are relatively new, and advocates face questions about how to pay for such projects and how to maintain their quality.
A panel of higher-education experts gathered on Tuesday to discuss those issues and the future of the movement. Earlier in the day, Rice University announced that its open-education platform, Connexions, would soon offer free online textbooks for five popular courses.
At the meeting, Martha J. Kanter, U.S. under secretary of education, said her experience as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, in California, had taught her how high prices can put textbooks out of reach for many students. Her institution offered training for aspiring emergency medical technicians, but the textbook cost $500, she said: “There were too many students who just couldn’t afford to pay that.”
Web platforms that make it easy for authors to write and revise contents have the potential to encourage lower-cost alternatives to traditional textbooks, she said.
Ms. Kanter highlighted three questions that open-education-resource providers should keep in mind as the movement grows: How can publishers establish peer-review systems to vouch for the quality of educational materials? What will the market for open-education resources look like? And how will these tools increase the affordability of education?
Michael W. Carroll, a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law, said openness and quality need not be in tension. Open content can easily be published using a peer-review system in which experts can maintain high standards, he said.
Mr. Carroll is a founding member of Creative Commons, an organization that provides easy-to-use copyright licenses that encourage sharing. The open-education movement’s growth, he said, reflects a “market failure” in the publishing industry that could be corrected with open content.
Even when peer-review systems aren’t available, one panelist noted that students sometimes police the material themselves. Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University, said students give vocal feedback about which tools work best. “Our students let us know immediately if certain resources are not useful to them,” she said. “Red lights go off.”
Although the panelists acknowledged that the open-education ecosystem is still immature, one key characteristic of these materials went largely unaddressed: their text-heavy format.
Recalling Apple’s entry into the e-textbook market, the education-technology expert David Wiley, in a blog post last week, raised the question of how text-based open resources would survive as publishers begin to offer low-cost, fully interactive alternatives.
“Sure, there are ‘traditional’ OER textbooks available for free,” wrote Mr. Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. “But when you could have video, multimedia, simulations, and interactive assessments for $15, why would you take a traditional book (whether print or video) even if it is free?”