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Universities should put educational materials online and make them free

  • 19 June 2023
  • By Richard F Heller
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Richard F. Heller, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Manchester, UK and Newcastle, Australia.
  • The HEPI Annual Conference is our flagship annual event and is taking place in central London on Thursday (22 June 2023). It will feature a range of high-profile speakers, plus the launch of the HEPI / Advance HE 2023 Student Academic Experience Survey. More details here.

Plan E for Education is my proposal that a proportion of the educational resources generated in publicly funded universities be made freely available for sharing and use by others. This would be the educational equivalent of initiatives that require publicly funded research to be published in open access journals or platforms, characterised as Plan S.

The initiative for research findings to be made available came from the funders of research, who wanted the results of research to be freely available to those who could put the results into practice. They could not see why the research that they had funded should be hidden behind the paywalls of publishers.

A parallel initiative would allow educational materials to be used widely rather than being hidden behind the paywalls of publicly funded universities.

There is a global initiative towards open publishing of educational materials, which are termed Open Educational Resources (OER) and are supported by enabling infrastructure termed Open Educational Practices. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was an early leader in the field, and now publish all their courses online. As early as 2003 they reported more than 11,000 visitors to the site per day of whom half were self-learners. There is also precedent in the US where some government funded educational materials are required to be made freely available online.

In the UK there was early support for open publishing of educational resources through a time-limited project to stimulate innovation in the higher education sector, as well as a large repository for discovering and sharing OERs. However the UK does not seem to have followed up on these promising initiatives.

A 2019 UNESCO report encourages member states to openly license educational resources developed with public funds. And in Australia its Productivity Commission recommended that:

The Australian Government should: increase the transparency of teaching performance by requiring universities to provide all lectures online and for free.’

The idea resonates with Guy Standing’s Plunder of the Commons, where he argues that education used to, and should, be a public good.

The move towards online learning is key to open access, and it will allow ease of sharing through open repositories.

There is, however, considerable resistance both from institutions and from academics which may explain why open education has not taken off and is still a niche offering. The Australian Productivity Commission has tried to reassure universities that they would not lose income through making their educational resources open access, after all it is the credential that the university ‘sells’ not the actual resources. There are many arguments to support academics utilising high quality resources developed by others rather than spending time and effort creating their own.

How would this work in practice?

Plan E would require repositories to host and provide access to educational materials produced by academics. The repositories could be hosted by individual universities or have a broader national or discipline base. As discussed in the HEPI Report Who Owns Online Lecture Recordings?,  ownership of the intellectual property of educational materials is complex and both copyright and licencing need to be considered. The scheme I propose will only be feasible if the materials are published under an open access licence where credit is given to the creator and public permission is given to use the work.  To make this more useful and attractive to academics, a peer review system for educational materials would mirror that already used for research publications. Academic credit could then flow to those who publish and review educational resources and extend to other academic input such as updating the work and creating instructional materials. This might help reverse the current downgrading of teaching in universities in favour of research.

There would be three delivery strands:

  • students access materials through the university that has produced them as per current practice;
  • individual students outside the university that created the materials access materials for their own learning at whatever stage of life this is relevant to them; and
  • third party organisations, including other universities, contextualise and deliver the materials to their students.

Whole courses or at least sections of courses that carry assessment, would be provided, including all the components such as competencies and learning outcomes, as well as the resources and assessments. An indication of the academic level and the amount of credit should also be provided.

Accreditation of learning might also be considered by the university who produced the material when it is offered outside the creating institution. This is the system used by the OERu, where partner universities offer free access to online courses, with students paying to submit assignments which can earn them microcredits towards a degree offered by one of the partners. A more radical option would be to develop a system where students collect up microcredits in this way from whatever source they wish and present them to an accrediting body for an academic award rather than enrolling in a particular degree course. This was described by the editor of a previous publication of this idea as the ‘DIY degree’.

Why is this a good idea?

Why should resources produced using public money not be made freely available to all? The Australian Productivity Commission listsseveral social and economic advantages such as increasing teaching quality, student empowerment and lifelong learning. In addition I see the potential for this to enable true reform of the educational landscape. The idea requires a pivot to online learning and hence would be consistent with the Distributed University where virtual or physical regional hubs replace large central campuses. It provides opportunities for collaboration rather than the dominant competitive business model, and it could create the environment for the primacy of teaching rather than an inconvenient task by those seeking academic advancement through research. Global access can make a contribution towards reducing global inequality in access to higher education.

The policy implications

Since universities are autonomous institutions, this initiative will depend on their cooperation, unless adoption becomes a requirement of funding. This is what I would like to see happen:

  •  A group of individuals and organisations would come together to advocate for this initiative.
  • An organisation would be created to pilot and then evaluate the development of open repositories, a peer review system for open educational materials, and systems for offering microcredits to students and academic credit to academics.
  • Within three years 10% of all public university courses would be freely available online for others to access, as an interim goal.
  • Eventually, most university-generated educational material would no longer be kept behind institutional paywalls.

Note: This blog is drawn from my article in The Conversation: DIY Degree? Why universities should make online educational materials free for all.

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  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Thanx for this.

    I strongly support making all outputs from publicly funded organisations open access, including teaching materials produced by public colleges and universities.

    The default position is that employers own all the intellectual property produced their employees during the course of their employment, whether at the employer’s premises during working hours or at home under the shower.

    This position applies to teachers and academics unless the employer has different provisions in their regulations or contracts with their employees.

    So in most cases there should be no need for special licensing of syllabuses, slides, and other teaching materials produced by academics. Of course there should be extensive discussion and consultation within universities on what many colleagues will consider a substantial change in their position.

    But it would be complicated and expensive to make open access text books, journal articles and other copyright material produced from outside the college or university. So for my courses the public would get access to the reading list but not to most of the readings.

    I would build from a modest start. I would therefore not include peer review of teaching materials in a first stage. It adds difficulty, complexity and considerable extra workload. While I value expert colleagues’ views on my teaching materials, I am not sure all academics would consider this an advantage of the proposal.

    Neither would I include assessment in the first stage of the proposal. Again, it adds difficulty and complexity. Auditors could not make a worthwhile attempt at the assessment I prescribe without analysing the paywalled readings I recommend. But I would encourage departments to make their open courses assessable and would hope to build on a modest start.

  2. Richard Heller says:

    Thank you, Gavin, for your support of the notion. The idea of a modest start has many attractions, if we do not lose sight of future potential benefits. I suspect that utility will be increased where full courses with readings and even assessments are made available, but acknowledge the difficulties that you outline. Establishing a peer review system would also be a really difficult task, but has the potential for academics to gain credit for their educational efforts to mirror that for research. These would entail major policy changes, so I fully support your suggestion of a modest start and hope that this discussion will help gain some traction and encourage some experiments in implementation.

  3. Gavin Moodie says:

    I strongly support peer review of teaching, which is institutionalised by several Australian universities (Johnston, Baik and Chester, 2022) and the University of British Columbia (no date), amongst others.

    I think the better practice is for peers to review holistically each course’s context, materials, teaching-learning, assessment, and the teacher’s evaluation of their course.

    Some review just classes, which reinforces the reductively wrong tho regrettably common view that teaching-learning is just ‘delivery’.

    But reviewing just materials would be valuable. It would be open to a materials reviewer to observe that so much of the teaching-learning is achieved thru interaction between the teacher and students that the materials are not so valuable independent of the interaction.

    Johnston, A. L., Baik, C., & Chester, A. (2022) Peer review of teaching in Australian higher education: a systematic review, Higher Education Research & Development, 41:2, 390-404.

    University of British Columbia Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (no date) Summative peer review of teaching. University of British Columbia, Vancouver

  4. This is a powerfully written proposal. There’s no question that a lot of good teaching materials are being replicated less well all over the place by teachers who don’t know the good ones are out there. I’ve been seeing this kind of suggestion since I first ran across the term ‘blended learning’ in 2015 (I know, a late bloomer), but this is much better worked out.

    My reservation, however, is that currently there are teachers employed to produce those replica materials and deliver them. It requires at least a certain amount of expertise and therefore for the teaching institution to have someone who can do that. The more we outsource the production of teaching materials, though, the lower that institutional need drops. After all, outsourcing is always an efficiency, that is a cost-saving, measure. The more materials can be bought or brought in from outside, the easier it is to pay a teaching assistant to run the seminars based on them. If the big providers get good at this, the poor institutions will be able to buy—or, under your proposal, get in for free—entire module templates with pre-set materials and never need to engage anything other than bottom-level teaching staff to coordinate delivery. It might keep some of the smaller universities who are really struggling going; but it will also see a lot of their staff redundant, and it’s also hard to see why the institutions providing this stuff would do so for free, when all they would have to do is be less expensive than the staff the buyers would otherwise need to pay to build their own modules.

    So I fear that in the end, what this would create is a two-tier set-up of provider institutions and consumer institutions, the former with some academic staff and the latter more or less without. Since even the big players in the university market are constrained in revenue (I wrote about this on my blog a while back), providers will be under considerable pressure to charge for this service. And one might reasonably ask, as paying student, what one is actually getting by enrolling at a consumer institution, since this material is presumably all online anyway. The next and probably final step, therefore, is the provider institutions setting up distance learning modules (maybe even MOOCs, except that they’re actually not very viable it seems) of their own based on those materials, to draw students away from the consumer institutions to pay the provider ones direct. At which point the consumers go bust.

    So I love the ideology of this idea; but the economic implications of it seem to me potentially disastrous for the sector. Perhaps you can tell me why I’m wrong; I’d like to be reassured more than I’d like to be right!

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