Category Archives: Research

Adopting Open Textbooks in the UK

This post was first shared via the Open Education Working Group blog.

In March of 2017 the Open Education Research (OER) Hub received a small grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to assess whether current US models of open textbook adoption would translate to the UK HE context. In a short space of time we put together under the UK Open Textbook Project a team of interested parties, which included David Kernohan and Viv Rolfe this side of the Atlantic, and David Ernst (Open Textbook Network) and OpenStax on American soil.

The cost of textbooks in the US is massive. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that textbook prices have increased by 88% in the past ten years. The average student enrolling in the 2015-16 academic year had to budget between $1230 and $1390 for textbooks and course materials. To put this in context, a loaf of bread is $2.50 and a pint of milk, 40 cents. That’s over 3000 pints of milk and nearly 500 loaves of bread that you’d need to go without in order to purchase your textbooks (and we all know in bad weather what’s the first thing that goes from supermarket shelves). Seriously though, academic performance is also taking a hit: Student PIRGS says that two thirds of students don’t buy a required textbook because they are too expensive, with cost having a negative impact on which and how many courses they register for. Can you imagine how you would cope in your course without the textbook? Research tells us that earning a poor grade, failing or dropping out would not come as a surprise.

The Open Textbook Library defines open textbooks as “textbooks that have been funded, published, and licensed to be freely used, adapted, and distributed. These books can be downloaded for no cost, or printed at low cost”. Because they serve to offset the cost of traditional textbooks, open textbooks have a reason to exist, and the fact that $5 million have been put aside by Congress to fund an open textbook grant program demonstrates that in the US the issue is treated with grave concern. However, is cost a valid argument to adopt open textbooks in the UK? In a recent report on the financial position of students in higher education in England, commissioned by the Department for Education we learn that:

“Compared with the cost of tuition fees, expenditure on direct course costs made up a smaller proportion of full-time students’ participation costs – they spent on average £512 (six per cent of total participation costs) on these items in the 2014/15 academic year. Fulltime students spent the most on computers (£253), followed by printing, photocopying and stationery (£105), then books (£101) and other equipment (£31).” (p. 279)

£101 does not sound like a lot of money, does it? Students in England are delivered a brutal blow by having to pay fees of £9000 a year, not by the amount of money spent on textbooks. It is true that we don’t want to add to their woes and anything we can save them comes as a bonus. What I’d like to highlight here is that if open textbooks are to be adopted in the UK, we need to look beyond cost and sing out loud what we (teachers and students) can do with an open textbook that we can’t do with a traditional textbook. My emphasis in the above definition has to be on “licensed to be freely used, adapted and distributed”.

As part of the work carried out by the UK Open Textbooks Project, the team ran a total of fourteen workshops in eight HE institutions in England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. The aim of these was to raise awareness of open textbooks and to invite participants to review an open textbook from the Open Textbook Library. As it happened, I facilitated workshops in Glasgow Caledonian University, where registration fees are zero pounds, and NUIGalway, where students pay a ‘contribution’ of €3000 per year. Neither of these universities would see cost as the only swinging logic to use an open textbook in the classroom, but both could reasonably buy into the idea of an open textbook as a living creature that can be adapted ad libitum. An open textbook is more than free; it is free with permissions; permission to reorder chapters, localise examples, translate into any language, add content to, delete paragraphs, link to external sources, and more. More. More. Think about it. Ask your students to think about it.

If you do and you’d like our support, get in touch: @UKOpenTextbooks.


Call for papers – Special collection: Open Education in Latin America



As we prepared to get the IV Workshop Recursos Educativos Abiertos (WREA) off the ground, my co-chairs and myself discussed the possibility of also co-editing a special collection of papers in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education with a focus on open education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Here it is. Nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena.

JIME Latin American Special Collection CfP

Last April representatives from 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean gathered in São Paulo to discuss the recommendations that would be put forward to the 2nd World OER Congress in relation to mainstreaming OER to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal on Quality Education. During the discussions that preceded these recommendations, it was noted that countries in Latin America are still in the early stages of adopting OER. This delayed uptake was firstly attributed to the lack of visibility of existing open education initiatives in the region. In this Special Collection the co-editors seek to highlight issues and challenges emerging from the effective implementation of OER policies, initiatives and projects in Latin America; and showcase research on the process of adoption and impact of the use of OER in educational settings in the region.

We invite contributions to JIME, for a special collection issue on open education in Latin America. Submissions to JIME should have a clear educational focus or application, and should illuminate the special contribution that digital media can make to learners’ knowledge, understanding or skill. Submissions are expected to advance knowledge in the field in some way, by developing theory, or critiquing existing work, or providing an analysis or framework for understanding empirical findings.

Different kinds of submissions will be judged by different criteria. Ideally, we are looking for integrated submissions that present the theoretical basis for a technology, its design process and implementation, its evaluation, and theoretical implications. However, one or more of these aspects may form the basis for a submission.

For this issue on Open Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, themes include but are not limited to:

  • Financing models for the effective implementation of OER policies and practices
  • Strategies for the adoption and sustainability of OER
  • Challenges for mainstreaming OER/OEP
  • Innovative technologies that promote and sustain OER/OEP
  • Overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers
  • Open pedagogy and approaches to teaching and learning based on openness.

Contributors should take account of JIME’s guidelines for submissions.

    • March 17th 2018: manuscripts due
    • Summer 2018: issue published

The co-editors will be:
Tel Amiel, Universidade de Campinas, Brazil
Beatriz de los Arcos, The Open University, UK
Ismar Frango, Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, Brazil and
Virginia Rodés, Universidad de la República, Uruguay.

Featured image: Educación pública, B. de los Arcos CC BY-NC 2.0

Open textbooks at NUI, Galway


Photo by Eileen Walsh, @EileenWalsh101

Over a week ago I facilitated a workshop entitled ‘Open Textbooks: Access, Affordability and Academic Success’ at the university in Galway. This is not my original work but adapted from a presentation that David Ernst gives as director of the Open Textbook Network. The reason is that we (the OER Hub team, David and other colleagues) are working on a small research grant from the Hewlett Foundation to evaluate how easily current US models of textbook adoption translate to UK higher education. The project is UK-based but hints at a wider European remit; since my European heart is closer to Ireland than any other country, it seemed to me perfectly fit to start my open textbook tour in my adopted home. I’m grateful to Sharon Flynn for kindly letting me take over her open practices session, and to her #CEL263 class for putting up with three whole hours of me talking open textbooks. #CEL263 is one of the modules contributing to NUIG’s Postgraduate Diploma in Academic Practice, a course I would like to take myself, without any qualms about giving up my Friday evenings.

But I digress. Let me give you a brief run through the slides:

Education is a human right. As such, higher education should be equally accessible to all. While one might be inclined to think that this is an issue affecting primarily developing nations, truth is, it’s right on our doorstep, yours and mine. We hope education will be the demise of social inequality, yet too often how education is structured serves to reinforce social inequality.

The bulk of the argument rests on data around cost: government funding of HE going down, tuition fees on the increase, blood-chilling drop out rates, and large student debt on graduation day. I actually thought that this wouldn’t run true in Ireland. Alas, I didn’t have to dig too deep to find that I was wrong.

The cost of having a degree in Ireland is phenomenal. Yes, students probably drink too much, and should use a bus éireann more often, and live at home longer (ahem). What can we do, realistically? Textbooks are expensive. Research tells us that this has caused students to not purchase the required textbook, take fewer courses, not register for a specific course, earn a poor grade, drop a course and even fail a course. We are not taking only about impact on student finances, but impact on students’ academic performance.

Could textbooks be free? Not if we follow a traditional publishing business model. A publisher produces a textbook, recoups investment in sales, and pays royalties to the author; copyright protects against, for example, one student buying a text and photocopying it for everyone else. There are other models, though: a funder pays the publisher to produce a book with the condition to make it available free of cost forever. This textbook is still copyrighted, how can the end-user be aware of the funder’s intent for the textbook to be shared freely? Enter Creative Commons licences.

Open textbooks are textbooks that have been funded, published, and licensed to be freely used, adapted, and distributed“. David Ernst started The Open Textbook Library to make it easy to find open textbooks. The rest of the slides in the workshop quickly introduce research covering how students and educators perceive the quality of open textbooks (as OER), and their efficacy. There are also a few examples of how open textbooks have been adopted and adapted, and finally an invitation to browse the library and write a review.

Questions and comments on the day:

Does creating an open textbook count towards my academic profile?’ ‘Do students really care about their learning?’. Plus, what I’m gonna call the usual Irish banter, ‘Do they not have photocopying machines in the US?’

If you read only one piece as a follow up to this post, make it Stephen Downe’s ‘If we talked about the internet like we talk about OER‘.

OER at #iNACOL14


The 9th (and to date largest) iNACOL Blended and Online Symposium has now concluded. Joining the nearly 3,000 attendees at the massive Palm Springs Convention Center, I made my way from Pueblo to Sierra via San Jacinto and Catalina, ice cream in one hand and lemonade in the other, navigating the talks in the OER participant track –and believe me, with over 200 concurrent sessions packed in two and a half days, I very much welcomed a path to follow.

It wasn’t by coincidence that in her welcome address Susan Patrick, CEO identified open education and OER as one of the top ten trends driving the future of education: iNACOL are key contributors to the development of OER through policy –see for instance OER State Policy in K-12 Education: Benefits, Strategies, and Recommendations for Open Access, Open Sharing and OER and Collaborative Content Development.

At this year’s conference Karl Nelson, Director of the Digital Learning Department for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) referred to current legislature to foreground his talk on evaluating OER: the state of Washington’s “recent adoption of common core K-12 standards provides an opportunity to develop a library of high-quality, openly licensed K-12 courseware that is aligned with these standards”. The familiar ‘it may be free, but is it any good?’ case initiated a review process of OER in Math and English Language Arts (ELA) to help educators select high-quality resources, provide information for materials adoption and identify gaps in alignment with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Not small OER, mind you, but full courses that districts could adopt rather than spend money in a textbook.

The evaluation rubric combines five existing review instruments. For breadth, Common-Core alignment; publishers’ criteria, an overview of curricular materials (i.e. entire courses) that integrates content and practice; and reviewers’ comments, –‘Would you use this material in your classroom?’, ‘What is the ideal scenario for this resource?’, etc. For depth, the EQuiP rubric, which is unit-focused and measures overall quality when compared to CCSS; and a subset of the Achieve OER rubric, designed to evaluate the quality of digital materials.

The outcome of the review is not only an important library of K-12 open resources, but also a methodology for districts to replicate as they adopt OER. Kudos to both efforts but my slight gripe with spreading this ‘how-to’ is that, at least on first impressions, it’s a fairly complicated task even for a dedicated and trained team of educators/reviewers.

“Teachers think they don’t have the stuff to make Common Core work”, said Karl; this gap is about to be filled by K-12 OER Collaborative, a state-led project supported by Creative Commons, Lumen Learning and others. Nelson was nearly as tight-lipped as his co-presenters, Jennifer Wolfe from The Learning Accelerator and Layla Bonnot from the Council of Chief State School Officers (SSOO), or at least just enough to build up the excitement about an official RFP likely to be announced during OpenEd next week: the call to create openly-licensed, high-quality, common-core aligned comprehensive modules for K12 Math and ELA will be open to all content developers. Interested? Watch the space.

The slides for my own presentation ‘Teaching and Learning with OER: What’s the Impact in a K12 (Online) classroom?’ are available here.

Cleaning our way to a monster dataset

In February of 2013 the newly put together OERRH team completed the humongous task of creating a bank of survey questions which would be one of the main research instruments to collect data around the project’s eleven hypotheses. Bear one thing in mind: at the time, each of us was working with a different collaboration –OpenStaxSaylor AcademyFlipped Learning Network,OpenLearnTESS-IndiaCCCOER, etc.; initially, each collaboration was allocated a different hypothesis, which also meant a different pick of questions from the survey bank and a different version of the survey. I’ll give you a couple of examples: our collaboration with the Flipped Learning Network originally focused on teachers’ reflective practices so flipped educators never answered questions on the financial savings of using OER; students using OpenLearn were not asked about the impact of OER on teaching practices; informal learners did not have questions that related to formal studies, and so on. In addition, collaborations had a stake in the research and input in the design of their survey: questions were discussed further, tweaked, piloted and tweaked again ahead of launching. All in all, we put together 18 different questionnaires. The idea was always there to merge all data into one massive file (what I called the MONSTER) that would allow us to undertake comparative analysis. What follows is the official record of how I laboriously coded, recoded, corrected, deleted and cursed (a bit) through the OERRHub surveys in order to have a squeaky clean dataset.

SurveyMonkey and SPSS don’t talk to each other that well

Every researcher knows that there are errors and inaccuracies that need to be ironed out before you commit yourself to analysing quantitative data. We are all human, right? On this occasion, for the first complication that came my way, I’m gonna blame the software: when exporting data from SurveyMonkey as anSPSS file, your variable labels and values will get confused. Let me explain: say you want to find out about OER repositories, so you create a list in SurveyMonkey and ask respondents to tick options from it to answer the question ‘Which OER repositories or educational sites have you used?’. If you expect the list to appear as variable labels in SPSS, it won’t. Instead, the software will repeat your question in the Label box and use the name of the repository in the Values box with a value of 1.


As it happens, the wonderful OER researcher Leigh-Anne Perryman had a solution in her bottomless bag of tricks: the question design in SurveyMonkey had to be amended for future respondents to have the option to tick either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for each of the repositories on the list. To sort out the damage with any data already collected, what needed to be done was manually input the name of the repository in the label box, and give the variable a value of 1=yes and 2=no. Tedious but easy to fix.


Editing the survey questions to include a yes/no answer also served to remedy another software mishap: the fact that SurveyMonkey does not differentiate a blank answer from a ‘no’ answer when downloading results as a SPSS file. On this occasion, the required fix wasn’t quick. I closely inspected the data case by case: if the respondent did not choose any of the options in a particular question, I considered each a ‘missing’ value; if the respondent ticked just one option, the blank answers were recoded into a ‘no’ value.

Another curious instance of having to recode data was spotted by Beck as the two of us marvelled over having responses from a total of 180 different countries in the world: I can’t recall whether this was a default list in SurveyMonkey but for some reason Great Britain and the United Kingdom were given as separate choices. Obviously, these had to be combined into one.

Correcting human errors

I put my hand up. The OERRH surveys aren’t exactly short and sweet. As a result, and this is my own take on the matter, the data suffered. In some cases, respondents provided the demographic information but did not answer anything else; they were deleted from the final dataset. Exact fate met those who selected all options in one question, despite being mutually exclusive –I find it hard to believe that someone is studying in school and getting a degree while doing a postgrad at the same time, don’t you?

I’ve decided that for some respondents it must have been easier to provide an answer in the comments box than reading through all the available options; what other explanation can you find for a teacher who answers the question ‘What subject do you teach?’ by writing ‘Engineering’ in the ‘Other’ field instead of ticking that from the 17 items at his disposal? Duly noted and corrected.

In other cases, for instance, respondents would leave unticked ‘MOOCs’ when asked about what type of OER they use, but then add as an open comment that they studied with Coursera or EdX. These had to be corrected as well.

Although written in English, the OERRHub surveys were distributed world-wide: it is difficult to anticipate where people might find the language a barrier, but here is an example: we used the word ‘unwaged’ to inquire about employment status; several respondents left the option unmarked, but indicated “Unemployed” or “No job” in the comments field. Again, these cases were corrected accordingly.

Merging data

Cleaning data is always painstaking work, especially when you are handling thousands of cases, but let’s face it, it is also mostly uncomplicated. What could have been if not avoided at least attenuated was the trouble that I saw myself in when having to merge the data from the eighteen OERRHub surveys. As days went by, the monster dataset grew fatter and fatter, but my love for my colleagues (and myself) grew thinner and thinner. Why? It is true that each of the individual surveys had to be customised as per collaboration but we researchers were a tad undisciplined: there were unnecessary changes to the order in which options were presented, there were items added and items subtracted, and wording altered without consultation. All this made data merging more time-consuming, cumbersome and fiddly than it should have been.

All is well that ends well though. We have a clean dataset that comprises of 6390 responses and is already producing very interesting results. Here is one of the lessons learnt: if you are dealing with multiple researchers and multiple datasets, nominate a data master: one to rule them all and bind them, although not in the darkness. Darkness is bad, open is good.

Evening OERthlings, greetings from Mars!

I’m in Mars, Pennsylvania Route 228, population 1,699. Most notable Martian? A certain Gino Crognale, of renown in the make-up world for his artistry in The Walking DeadFlipCon14, the 7th Annual Flipped Learning Conference, is about to start and it’s not zombies descending on these 0.5 square miles of Butler County, but hordes of teachers with one thing on their minds: the flip!

This year conference organisers have divided presentations into different strands, so it’ll be difficult to come away not having found what you travelled here for, whether you are an experienced flipped educator, new to flipped learning, a sponsor showcasing your products or, like me, a humble researcher in the land of the free.  Apart from plenaries and plenty of opportunities for networking, there are in total six slots of concurrent sessions where on site attendees will have to choose from up to twelve different talks each. My interest will stay with the research strand during the two days, so here’s what I’m looking forward to:

Katherine McKnight, Principal Director of Research for the Center for Educator Learning and Effectiveness at Pearson, and Jessica Yarbro, George Mason University will review research on teaching and learning with video.

Irma Brasseur-Hock and Meghan Arthur, University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, will share the research findings of a project involving a survey of 142 members of the Flipped Learning Network and focus groups interviews. What was exactly their research question? I’m eager to find out.

Kari Arfstrom and Taylor Pettis will compare the results from the most recent survey of flipped educators to that of two years ago in terms of the who, what, why, where and when of flipped learning.

Chris Luker, Chemistry Teacher from Highland Local Schools, will chair a round-table discussion with the aim of “collaboratively organizing research ideas that will continue to support the flipped learning model”. Ah, the need for research! Can’t beat it.

And Lucy Kulbago, John Carroll University, will examine student attitudes toward science and conceptual gains in a flipped undergraduate introductory physics course for life science majors.

There is plenty to tempt me away from this my initial choice, but I shall hope to stick to my guns and feed back in a couple of days.

Now where are those zomb… I mean flipped educators?

Photo: Pennsylvania Route 228 CC BY B. de los Arcos


I flip, you flip, she flips…

I’m off to Belfast tomorrow for a Staff Development Languages Day at The Open University’s elegant headquarters on Victoria Street. I usually enjoy these gatherings very much; there are few of us languages tutors in Ireland compared to the other regions and nations, and Saturday will be a much welcomed chance to catch up face-to-face –some of us have been tutoring with the OU for 15 years already! It’ll be an action-packed day: Jing, wikis and HEA membership apart from the usual updates on the nitty-gritty of life as an AL. My slot will be about OER and flipped learning; one thought often occupies my mind these days and it is how the flipped class can be better if teachers flip with OER, so that’s the question I’ll be putting to my colleagues, ‘what does OER use bring to the flipped (language) classroom?’ I was asked to send a handout to be photocopied and handed out (obviously!), but I think sharing here is better –it saves a couple of trees from the chop to counterbalance my embarrassingly high CO2 imprint.

See my slides below: an overview of the OER Research Hub Project, the OER Impact Map and flipped learning as prelude to, I hope, an open discussion on the benefits (or not) of OER-ing.