Universities should put educational materials online and make them free

  • This HEPI blog
    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.

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

    How would this work in practice?

    Plan E would

    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 ConversationDIY Degree? Why universities should make online educational materials free for all.

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