Coming of Age: Open Education Resources for Physics

David Harris, Editor in Chief, OpenStax College

A Critical Turning Point
Increasing under-employment, spiraling costs, and mountains of debt threaten current and future generations of students. The need to prepare students for a technology-based economy has never been more acute. However, traditional barriers and “closed” market systems are curtailing access to critical educational resources. In particular the rising price of course materials has exceeded the rate of inflation for more than two decades.  A typical student is struggling to make ends meet and is then confronted with a $1200 textbook bill. According to PIRG she, along with 6 out of 10 of her peers, will choose not to purchase these materials and this will greatly hinder her chances of success in the course. However, there is another way — a new open model that fundamentally changes the curation, production, and dissemination of content. Thanks to the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 20 Million Minds Foundation, Maxfield Foundation, and Rice University, OpenStax College is developing a library of 25 open text books that carry a CC-BY license. College Physics, an algebra-based introductory physics text, our first project, was published in June 2012. To date the text has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and is in use at over 230 institutions.

Learning, Not Free is the Priority
OpenStax College projects carry an open license and are always free for students to download; however, the real priority is on learning. We employ a rigorous development process in order to meet or exceed professional standards. College Physics was extensively peer reviewed and professionally developed. Our texts are designed to meet the scope and sequence of a typical course. College Physics is used in traditional courses and flipped classrooms, as well as in online courses. College Physics can be viewed online or it can be downloaded to a mobile device. It is available in pdf, in print, and in an iBooks textbook version.

The initial learning data are also encouraging. Professor Eric Christensen of South Florida College found, “I use the nationally-benchmarked Force Concept Inventory (FCI) to assess how well my physics students are learning the materials. I have been doing this for the past five years.  This year, my class scores on this assessment instrument were the highest that I have ever recorded for an algebra-based course.” In the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Dr. David Wiley and his colleagues found that Utah high school students learn the same amount of science in classes using $5 open textbooks as they do in classes using $80 traditional textbooks. However, there is clearly a need for more research on the efficacy of Open Education Resources (OER) in higher education.

Flexibility is Important
There are many claims in the media about the effectiveness and challenges of using online resources, especially e-texts. We are finding that student do not tend to exclusively use one version of our texts over the others. Many students will download the pdf and then print out the text as they need it. We have reports of students using the mobile version as a review tool. To date approximately 10% of our users opt for a traditional print version.

A New Distributed Ecosystem
In physics the use of online homework, such as WebAssign, Sapling Learning, and ExpertTA is also prevalent. OpenStax has partnered with these companies; over 30% of our physics adoptions now utilize these services. This partnership offers us insight into how students use their textbook when completing homework assignments. We have found that students who use the online homework systems typically access portions of the text as they work through homework assignments. These partnerships are also part of an emerging “ecosystem” in which OER producers work with “for profit” companies that provide additional products and services. In return these companies provide a modest mission support fee back to OpenStax to assist in the sustainability of the effort. This new distributed model is efficient, improves quality, and drives down overall costs for students.

MOOCs and OER: Free is Not Open
Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are frequently confused with open education resources. MOOCs are free to enroll in, but the content of the course, the platforms, and related course materials are proprietary. Furthermore, MOOCs are increasingly following a “freemium” model in which the course may be free but students are charged a fee in order to obtain credit or certification for completing the course. Open resources, on the other hand, are openly licensed, meaning that a physics instructor can take the resources, adapt them (the community has already created more than thirty derivative versions of College Physics) and re-distribute to the community for free providing that they use the correct attribution. There is some interplay between OERs and MOOCs, however: OpenStax College texts have been assigned for students enrolled in MOOCs.

Challenges and Questions Remain
The initial adoption and reaction to OpenStax College Physics is very encouraging; however, the continued success of the underlying values of OER, much like proprietary content producers, will become increasingly dependent on “big data”. A current challenge is to produce intelligent adaptive systems that provide students with clear direction and personalized pathways through identified learning outcomes. This poses tremendous economic challenges at scale, but more troubling are the questions that emerge regarding the potential misuse of all the data this is being tracked. Why should data on student learning be proprietary? Wouldn’t systems get smarter if they were able to aggregate non-personalized data from the largest population pool? How will the use of proprietary system data be commercialized? How can open adaptive platforms provide alternatives that are driven more by learning theory than profit? Will an open software model like Red Hat and Linux work in the education market?

These issues must be addressed as the usage of OERs becomes more prevalent. This requires continued development on content, working closely with the community to measure the effectiveness of the resources, and deploying emerging technology in a responsible way. At OpenStax College we look forward to working with the physics community on these issues in order to realize our mission of improving access to high quality resources for all students.

David Harris is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and has worked extensively in higher education publishing. Most recently David was the president of WebAssign, the largest independent online homework provider. At OpenStax College David hopes to contribute to the teams effort of improving access to high quality materials by working with authors, developers, and partners to substantially lower costs for students.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.