In the last decade, educators and advocates for education have put a significant effort into enhancing the online availability of free educational resources.
Yale University has developed an entire website to provide free public access to its open course content and Harvard University's Open Learning Initiative offers free noncredit courses taught online by Harvard faculty. The Kahn Academy, a non-profit organization, offers more than two thousand instructional videos to anyone and a variety of online repositories are making academic materials freely available with a creative commons license.
Rio Salado College and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are collaborating with support from BrandED on an Open Educational Resource (OER) project. The objective is to create an efficient process for surveying and reviewing publicly available information so that it can be bundled into for-credit classes.
By paving the way for this type of course development, Rio Salado is hoping to uncover a valuable resource that will universally improve the quality of course content while simultaneously lowering the cost of course production.
According to Rio Salado College Associate Dean of Instruction Michael Cottam, the project fits perfectly with the missions of the organizations involved.
“The Gates foundation promotes open, low cost or free access to education. OER has the potential to make that happen," Cottam said. "The problem is that the resources may not be structured in such a way that they will work in a college class which is where Rio comes in.”
"While the logistics of this type of course development can be time consuming, Rio is well equipped to pioneer a more efficient process," Cottam said. "We have an incredibly flexible system for enhancing and evolving our courses."
While updating an existing Physics course and developing a brand new Psychology course using only creative commons and public domain content, the instructional design team has already encountered and overcome several potential stumbling blocks. Luckily, that's the point.
"We chose these courses because they have a very high-enrollment across the country and they’re very different from each other. One is theory and discussion based and the other is based on fixed rules and formulas. We wanted to make sure our experience with the project was as well rounded as possible so that we could identify and address a variety of issues that other institutions might face when using the process we have developed."
When the project is complete, Rio will not only share the procedural findings, but the college will also publish the bundled course materials under a creative commons license for use by any other institution or individual.
Psychology Department Faculty Chair Wanda Tucker said she believes the pilot course developed through the open source project is just as effective as her original course and that eliminating the cost of the source materials will have a significant impact on higher education.
"One of the things we are tuned into is making sure the course content meets the competencies of our existing psychology class and that we are providing an equivalent academic product to our students," Tucker said.
"Although open education is a buzz word right now, that's not our focus," she added. "This project is a genuine effort to improve education as a whole and our purpose in pursuing it is to add value to and increase the availability of learning resources."
Physical Science Faculty Chair Shannon Corona agrees.
"The resources are available. We can store, retrieve and share data instantly and seamlessly, why wouldn't we take advantage of these tools? That’s what this project is all about," Corona said. "We're creating a process for gathering and vetting publicly available information and packaging it for the benefit of a global student body."
The OER project is an attempt to determine the viability of creative commons and public domain content as academic source material and to provide a streamlined process for organizing and transforming those materials into useful learning tools.
"As we learn more and are able to organize and manage the content, we'll be able to create richer more diverse courses," Corona said. "What we’re doing right now is really just the beginning.”