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The Open Course Library Project

Open Education

cable green
Copyright and related rights waived via CC0

Late last year, I caught wind of an initiative that was being funded by the Gates Foundation—it had to do with redesigning the top 80 courses of Washington State’s community college system and releasing them all under CC BY (Attribution Only). The initiative was called the Washington State Student Completion Initiative and the specific project that was dealing with redesign and CC licensing was the Open Course Library Project. I decided to find out more, so I set up a Skype date with Cable Green, the head of the project.  Below is the transcribed interview, edited for clarity and cut as much as possible for 21st century attention spans.

Tell me a little bit about who you are, where you come from, and what your role is in open education.

Sure, my name is Cable Green. I’m the eLearning Director for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Our system consists of 34 community and technical colleges and those colleges teach roughly 470,000 students each year. Our enrollments are growing fast in this recessionary period as people are looking to enhance their work skills and go back to college to get degrees and certificates.

A big part of what I do is to work with colleges to figure out what technologies the system needs to run online, hybrid, and web-enhanced learning environments; and to roll out needed eLearning technologies [out] system wide. The other part of what I do is to try to figure out how we can share content across our system and with the rest of the world—and, in turn, how we take the open educational resources others are sharing and use it at our 34 colleges.

We are just now launching a new project that’s funded by the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation and the Washington Legislature and it’s all about doing exactly that. We’re going to take our 80 highest enrolled courses and design them to be digital, modular and open—to use very low cost instructional materials and we’ll be putting Creative Commons Attribution Only licenses on all of those courses and giving them away.

Do you want to tell me a little more about [this] Washington State Student Completion Initiative? How did that initiative come about?

The idea for it came from a two-year, system-wide discussion called the technology transformation task force… [and] out of that process came our Strategic Technology Plan. Boiled down what it says is—we need to find a way to share technologies and services better than we do today, and we need not do things 34 different ways at 34 different colleges when we’re talking about common, commodity, enterprise technology services.

And in that same report we said—hey, there’s this whole thing called Open Educational Resources (OER) going on out there in the world and we don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but we’re not part of it right now and we know that we need to be. So the Washington Student Completion Initiative project is really our chance to engage a significant project where we can, as a system, learn about open educational resources.

The student completion initiative is a broader set of projects through the Gates Foundation, but the piece I’m working on has to do with OER, and is called the Open Course Library Project. All of the information about the project is online on a wiki. A big part of this project is for our system to figure out what it means to share our digital educational resources. What does it mean to work with publishers in new ways and get them to reconfigure their content into affordable and modular formats? What does it mean to go out and find open textbooks and evaluate them and modify them? What does it mean to understand the different types of Creative Commons licenses vs. copyright? And what do we have to understand re: the legality around how those licenses mesh or don’t mesh? And then how does that affect the final digital thing that we release at the end, and put out in Rice University’s Connexions [repository]?

We’ve been trying to be very open about the process, so we’ve got this wiki online with all the [project] information. You’ll see the project budget up there with the goals and the timeline for the project. We’ve been having town hall meetings this fall—not only going out to the colleges and meeting directly with faculty face to face, but we’ve just finished our third online town hall meeting. We use Elluminate and anybody in the world is welcome to come [to these meetings which] are archived and put up on the wiki as well. As questions [and] concerns come in, we address those and put the answers up on the wiki.

When I read the proposal it said that one of the main goals of the student completion initiative is to increase community college graduation rates and that there’s a big problem about overcoming the “tipping point.” I was wondering if you could explain more about what the tipping point is and how the OER component, the redesign and release of 81 courses under CC BY, would help achieve this goal.

The tipping point research came out of the Washington state board for community and technical colleges.  David Prince [state board staff] led the study. I don’t claim to be an expert on it, but my understanding is that the tipping point has to do with students attending college for at least one year and getting a credential, and when students get to 15 credits in their academic plan, they tend to earn more and are more likely to do well in college. So 15 credits is a tipping point for them, [and after that] they are more likely to succeed than if they don’t complete 15 credits.

With this particular project–the Open Course Library–we’re looking at increasing completion in a few ways. And [there is a bit] of experimentation here. One thing that we think might increase completion rates is to have better designed courses. The idea is if you’ve got a well designed course–[as in] the course is internally consistent, the flow is good through it, there are formative assessments and summative assessments that make sense to the students, the listed learning outcomes match the assessments, etc. –that this could help students in completing the course.

The other completion [design] piece is significantly reducing the cost of instructional materials. We’re putting cap on how much instructional materials can cost in these redesigned courses; at $30. That could be for a printed course pack, it could be for the cost of printing an open textbook; it could be that somebody’s worked with a publisher and really got them to reconfigure their business model to bring their materials under $30. The idea here is if the instructional materials are significantly less expensive, that might help students stay in school where they otherwise might have to leave school to make money. And in community and technical colleges, Washington included, that’s a common occurrence. Students will come for a quarter or more, they will take as many courses as they can afford, and when they don’t have sufficient funds to continue,  they will leave college to work and make a living. Full time tuition in our system is roughly $3,000 / year and textbook costs for a full time student are conservatively $1,000 / year. If you look at it that way, the cost of textbooks is roughly 25% of a student’s cost of attending our colleges; that’s significant. So a big part of this project is to try and take a lot of those costs out of the system. We think that will not only improve participation rates, so more people will have the opportunity to come to college in the first place, but we think we might just improve completion rates as well.

Other than cost, is there any other incentive to using open educational resources for students and instructors? You mentioned becoming part of the global OER movement beforehand.

Absolutely. Let me start with the students. The students are primarily concerned about cost. We have a student legislative academy in our system, and these students are very active; they’re very organized. They get together annually and firm up their legislative platform, and then they go and testify in front of the legislature, and often work with the legislators to write bills. Their number one issue for two years running now has been textbook affordability. The students are aware that there are open textbooks out there, that there are ways to use open educational resources to build affordable course packs, and they are aware of this project–the Open Course Library project–and they are eager for it to be done so some of their highest enrolled courses might have required instructional materials under $30. The students are also very concerned about quality, obviously. Nobody wants low quality educational resources, and that’s primarily the faculty members’ concern as well, as it should be. Again, that’s part of the project–to help faculty go out and learn about open educational resources, and for them to engage their disciplines re: OER, to find out what’s out there, and then the faculty will decide what is high quality and what they want to use in their courses.

So–from the students’ point of view, it’s really about cost. There are other areas why our system is interested in OER. One of them is a belief (and I’ll speak for myself) that there are a lot of challenges and problems in the world, and to the extent that data and ideas and knowledge and education can be shared openly, there are more eyes on those problems and potentially a greater chance for solution. For faculty, I think that there’s a general understanding that the academy has always been about sharing, and sharing knowledge and building off the shoulders of others that have come before us. And to the extent that that’s true about the academy, open global content provides faculty with even more choices when they’re building their learning spaces. And not only to use others’ digital content, but to share their content as well.

OER is also about building networks; when people share their digital materials, one of the things that happens is that their professional networks grow and strengthen, and that’s positive. I think that one’s particularly challenging to just tell somebody because I know I didn’t believe that until I did it. When I started to share my slides on, when I started to write blogs, when I started to put my projects on wikis, when I put my information and my work out in the open, all sorts of new opportunities came my way. I was invited to be speaker at many conferences around our state and around the country –which is all great– but the most important thing that happened is [that] I’m now connected with people all over the world who have similar interests, who are tackling similar challenges, and that makes my professional network much stronger than it ever has been. And I’m able to use that network when I’ve got problems that I can’t solve. So for example, as we were starting the open course library wiki, I really wanted people’s feedback. We were getting a lot of feedback from inside our system, but I was interested in what the rest of the world thought as well. So I put a post up on my blog and I put it on my Twitter feed saying, “hey here’s some ideas we’re working on and if anybody has other ideas or can help us make it better, please send me an email, or reply to my blog post.” And within hours I had twenty to thirty messages from people all the way from South Africa to Fairbanks, Alaska. That’s what is so exciting about open educational resources and openness in general… it’s that we live in a globalized society and higher education is part of that global network.

Are your works online released under an open license as well?

Yes, everything I share is under a CC BY license.

So why did you choose that license and why for this initiative, too, for the 80 courses? Why did you guys decide to go with Attribution Only as opposed to the other licenses?

I had a lot of conversations about this, because in education I think the ShareAlike clause makes a lot of sense. I think, particularly in higher education, we believe that if you use somebody else’s stuff, not only should you credit them (and that’s what Attribution is about), but you should share whatever you’ve done with other people as well, and you pay it forward, as it were. And that’s my instinct, and the license that I wanted to use. But then I talked with folks at Hewlett, Gates and ccLearn, and they said, yeah, that’s what’s intuitive, but if you really are concerned about your materials being used by as many people as possible and to be modified in different ways and to be mixed with other people’s content, what you really want to do is to go with the lowest common denominator, most open license, which probably wouldn’t even be CC BY… it would probably be [in] the public domain or [dedicated to it via] CC0. But I think that the Attribution Only was a nice compromise for us. It’s important, I think, for our system to be recognized, for somebody to say “yes, this came from the Washington Community Technical Colleges”—not just for the recognition but what’s more important to me is again that network building piece. I want somebody in the Sudan to download, from the Connexions repository, our Introduction to Psychology course, and I want them to use the pieces [of the course] they want, or the whole course, and I want them to be successful. But I also want to know who those people are; I want to be in contact with them; I want their university president to send us an email and say, hey we’re using this and this part’s useful but this other part’s not–are you planning on changing it? We want those connections. And so I think the CC Attribution license is a good choice for sharing educational content.

What do you think about the more experimental projects in open education, purportedly working outside of traditional systems like the Peer 2 Peer University? …do you think that these two types, the traditional institution and projects like Peer 2 Peer University, can exist side by side? Or do you think the trend in the future of education is moving more towards one than the other?

It’s a great question, and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen–I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen. What I do know is that there are some trends that are happening right now, and they may be disruptive to existing higher education models. One of the trends is cloud computing. Another is Web 2.0 participatory technologies–and bottom line on that one is that there are more opportunities to contribute, participate, [and] work with each other than ever before in human history. That’s a biggie. Another trend around educational content is the open educational resources movement.  Put these three trends together and, naturally, folks are putting their [educational] content online and are sharing.

And a new trend is emerging – when tax payers (be it federal or state money–provincial money in Canada) pay for the production of something that’s digital and educational, that’s something that should have open licensing and should be freely available to the people that paid for it. So we’re starting to see that notion come out of this current US Congress. There are bills that provide funds for open textbooks. Senator Dick Durbin dropped a bill on that idea. In Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, there is 50 million dollars for the development of open courseware; those [courses] would have open licensing. There’s another bill, the 2009 Federal Research Public Access Act, that would require that 11 U.S. government agencies make journal articles stemming from research funded by that agency to be open and freely available. So I think those are all real trends that are happening. And that they’re not something that we can ignore.

Then what gets interesting around [initiatives] like Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People and Straighterline and others like it is that those are entities that are taking all of those trends and leveraging all of those trends… and frankly, thinking outside the box in ways public higher education typically does not. And not accepting the existing structures, the existing rules, the existing business practices we’ve followed in public higher education for decades. So what’s going to happen? Are they viable entities? I don’t know. These are the early adopters, and you never know what’s going to happen with early adopters.

So Peer 2 Peer University for example–there are a lot of volunteers in that particular model that are volunteering their time because they care about it and because they want to learn, and because they enjoy building networks with people from different cultures around the world who might speak different languages and have different opinions about the seminar topic. That’s interesting. That might not be based on a financial model that we would think about in traditional terms. I think we need to listen to Clayton Christensen’s advice about disruptive innovations and technologies, and we need to understand these trends are real. We need to pay attention to what happened to the newspaper industries when the disruptive technology and business practice called Craigslist came into being and took away the advertising revenue from newspapers, or a lot of it anyway, and has driven many newspapers out of business. And it’s not like [it was] Craigslist’s intention, but it was certainly a better place to have classified advertising.

I think the trends we’ve discussed are a similar threat to existing higher education models, and if you look at what’s really protecting existing higher education models today, it’s probably two or three major things. It’s accreditation, state subsidy, and federal subsidy around financial aid programs. And I’m not saying any of those things are bad; they’re not; they’re extremely important; but what I do think will happen sooner or later: these new disruptive models–  some of them will get accreditation, and sooner or later some of these new models may do a really good job of showing student achievement and dramatically increasing completion rates. And when that happens, how will money from state and federal governments flow? I don’t have the answers to that, but I think that those are some of the questions that we need to pay attention to.

Do you have any thoughts on how you or the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges would work with organizations like Creative Commons or [initiatives like] Peer 2 Peer University?

We partner with everybody. We’re staying in touch with Creative Commons now on our Open Course Library project. One of our questions is… so we design these 80 courses, we put them out in the world–[but] who’s using them? And right now there’s not a good way to know where it went. The new RDFa standards around putting an XML script on your digital materials and then (and I’m not fluent in how it works yet) somehow being able to get a report on where you stuff is and who’s using it…. I think this is crucial to this whole conversation, because a faculty member who shares her Introduction to Statistics course and [say] it’s being used in 30 countries by 10,000 students in X number of classrooms–that’s a powerful statement to make when she is up for tenure. It’s also just a powerful statement in general. And I think we, as educators, want to share, we want to make an impact, we want to make changes in people’s lives, we want to help people learn. That’s why we’re in this business. Nobody in higher education is in it to make money. If you want to make money, you go do something else. We’re in it because we care, because we want to do the right thing by students, and I think to have data that shows the impact one is having by sharing their open content is absolutely critical.

Another partnership that we’re heavily involved in now is CCCOER, the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. We’ve also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative. I sit on the board of CC OLI and we have an opportunity because of that to have two of our [college] faculty involved in national designs and redesigns of Carnegie Mellon’s open content.

One more example–the 2009 Open Ed Conference at the University of British Columbia this summer, which was hands down the best conference I’ve ever been to–one of the presentations I gave there was about this [open course library] project, and early ideas about it, but after I was done presenting, Texas, Florida, and California walked up and said, “So you’re really going to give away those 80 courses?” And I said, “Yeah, we really are.” California said, “Well we just got some money from a foundation to design 20 new open textbooks, and to revise some existing open textbooks. Which 20 would be useful?” And I handed them our list of 80 courses, and I said, “If you’re on any of these 80 courses, our faculty would sure like to take a look at those textbooks. I can’t guarantee we’re going to use them, but you know it would be useful to have quality textbooks out there that meet similar needs.” And Florida said, “We’re thinking about some projects like this, and rather than doing courses that you’ve created, how about we produce a different 15 or 20 courses, and then together we’d have a hundred instead of just 80.”

And Texas then chimed in, and since then, Ohio’s gotten involved in those conversations, and Connecticut, and others. And now what we’re talking as a whole group of states: “What are the top highest enrolled 50 courses in all of our states?” And so we’re all collecting that data right now and – big surprise —we all teach Intro to Statistics; we all teach Intro to Sociology; we all teach Intro to Psych… and tens of thousands of students in each. So we are producing a very simple matrix, nothing fancy, that shows those top 50 courses and shows where all the open textbooks are for those top 50 and where the open courseware is. And where the states are running open education projects–like this Open Course Library Project–we will actively reach out to each other and share information.

Here, when Washington is done with our 80 courses—please, take them, use them, here’s where they are—to be very vocal about that. And then as a consortium … and I hope that this grows to 50 states and many countries eventually … if we can really share what we’re all doing, I think we have an opportunity and tremendous power to go after grants when we find gaps in the matrix. So let’s say for example that we look at that matrix and we say, we just can’t find a really great [open] Oceanography textbook. We’ve pieced together some course packs, we have quality open courseware, but we really need a good open textbook for that course. We can’t find one; everybody’s looked. We’ve all reached out to our networks. That’s an opportunity for us to go to foundations, to the federal government, to our state governments and say, we need a couple hundred thousand dollars so we can hire the five best or ten best Oceanography professors in the United States to design and write an open Oceanography textbook. And we, this consortium, we’ve looked together, we’ve already shared learning resources, and this is something that we collectively need. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.

All of this conversation though has to be balanced against academic freedom, and faculty’s right to choose, and faculty’s need to and desire to determine what is it that they are using in their courses. I personally don’t believe in mandating any of this stuff. I think that’s the wrong approach. I think when you do that you’re just wading into waters that are not only destructive, but frankly unnecessary. I believe that if quality materials are available, at very low or no cost with open licensing; and students know about them… that is such a persuasive argument for engaging with those materials, that, over time, people will.

Posted 04 March 2010