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Using open educational resources to improve access to and affordability of learning resources

Colin McNeil, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Equitable access to education is not often achieved in academic institutions around the world, even in the most developed societies (Willems & Bossu, 2012). The issue of access is particularly evident in developing countries, where there consistently is a dearth of quality materials available to students (Kanwar, Kidhandaraman & Umar, 2010).

Education budgets continue to be stretched while public expectations continue to grow, forcing school districts and institutions into the difficult position of trying to do more with less (Wiley, Hilton, Ellington & Hall, 2012). This disparity in resources can even exist within a relatively small area, creating a dissimilar learning experience for students despite their close proximity (Wilson, 2008). This problem is also not defined by population density, as both urban and rural schools in Petrides and Jimes' (2008) research are impacted by a lack of resources.

Specifically, a lack of textbooks and other basic materials are the primary obstacles in delivering quality education (Richter & McPherson, 2012). One of the reasons for this shortage is textbooks and other education resources, as reported in Wiley, Hilton, Ellington and Hall (2012), have undergone a great deal of scrutiny in recent years to determine if the amount of learning they facilitate justify their costs. Furthermore, students in Ngimwa and Wilson's (2012) research report that it is far too costly to buy textbooks and pay subscription fees for journals and other academic resources. Even when districts do provide students with up-to-date textbooks, these materials must be persevered for several years, which can prevent students from taking texts home or from writing notes in the texts to aid studying (Wiley, et al.). Finally, another problematic issue relating to resources is that the economic difficulties often presented by the rising costs of textbooks can translate directly into pedagogical challenges for all learners (Wiley, et al.).

Role of ICTs

Open Educational Resources have the potential to expand access and improve the overall quality of education around the world (Kanwar, Kidhandaraman & Umar, 2010). This expanded access can reach a variety of learners, including those from non-traditional educational backgrounds, frequent travellers, full-time employees and individuals from under-represented groups (Wilson, 2008). Furthermore, OERs can enhance access, improve quality, and cut the costs of educational provisions in all countries (Kanwar, Kidhandaraman & Umar, 2010).

Willems and Bossu (2012) observed that students were able to use OERs to address the issues related to location and a lack of resources. Furthermore, students observed by Ally and Samaka (2013) were able to access OERs using mobile devices when faced with a lack of desktops and laptops. Regardless of how or where the information is accessed, OERs represent a significant cost savings when compared to traditional textbooks (Wiley, Hilton, Ellington & Hall, 2012).

Another integral component associated with OERs is collaboration, as modifying online resources leads to a greater degree of expertise and outreach experienced by learners (dos Santos, 2008). Additionally, collaborative OERs foster global knowledge, support capacity building in developing worlds and also raised the quality of education at all levels (Kanwar, Kidhandaraman & Umar, 2010). This wider group participation in education results in a wider range of possibilities for social inclusion and advancement of OERs as a whole (dos Santos, 2008). The availability of OERs allowed teachers and researchers surveyed in Chen and Panda (2013) to gain access to the best possible resources and to have more flexible materials, regardless of distance or face-to-face learning. Quite often, the software involved in OERs is free, with virtual learning sites such as Moodle being used with greater popularity versus commercial software, helping learners gain access to educational materials (dos Santos, 2008). To meet the needs of developing countries, OERs have been created to suite the limited Internet bandwidth available in most regions, allowing a greater number of students access to materials (Ngimwa & Wilson, 2012). Furthermore, Ossiannilsson and Creelman (2012) concluded that OERs stimulate higher quality education as students are able to preview and explore various educational fields, enhancing their informal and lifelong learning capabilities. OERs have the potential, as observed by Wilson (2008), to create equal opportunities in regard to an individual's right and access to education. Finally, OERs have the potential to play a fundamental role in supporting education development throughout the world (Richter & McPherson, 2012).


Despite over a decade of research, OERs have yet to show a discernable impact on public education in developed countries (Wiley, Hilton, Ellington & Hall, 2012). Furthermore, according to Armellini and Nie (2013), a lack in technical literacy skills was identified as a key factor in a learners' ability to effectively use OERs. Language issues are also a concern, particularly when learners are not proficient in English, as students will be unable to learn or access the material available in OERs (Willems & Bossu, 2012). Richter and McPherson (2012) reported that, for OERs to be useful to their learners, they must be available in numerous languages.

The open characteristics of OERs have also contributed to questions about the quality of these resources (Willems & Bossu, 2012). There are well established structures for quality control in text and journal submissions, but OERs have no corresponding level of evaluation, leaving the responsibility to the student or teacher to evaluate the quality of a resource (Ossiannilsson & Creelman, 2012). This concern leads to the question of who is actually revising and remixing these resources (Hilton, Wiley & Lutz, 2012). The issue of learning environment is also a concern, as it is a challenge to get to know students and build trust and openness in a virtual space (Hocking, Brett and Terentjevs, 2012). One final concern relating to OERs is although the information from universities is available for free online, students will still need to pay to get a degree, which leads to a view of OERs as marketing ploy versus an education revolution (Phelan, 2012).

Works cited

Ally, M., & Samaka, M. (2013). Open education resources and mobile technology to narrow the learning divide. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(2), 14-27.

Armellini, A., & Nie, M. (2013). Open educational practices for curriculum enhancement. Open Learning, 28(1), 7-20.

Chen, Q., & Panda, S. (2013). Needs for and utilization of OER in distance education: A Chinese survey. Educational Media International, 50(2), 77-92.

dos Santos, A. (2008). The discourses of OERs: How "flat" is this world?. Journal of Interactive Media in Education.

Hilton, J., Wiley, D. A., & Lutz, N. (2012). Examining the reuse of open textbooks. International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 13(2), 45-58.

Hockings, C., Brett, P., & Terentjevs, M. (2012). Making a difference--inclusive learning and teaching in higher education through open educational resources. Distance Education, 33(2), 237-252.

Kanwar, A., Kodhandaraman, B., & Umar, A. (2010). Toward sustainable open education resources: A perspective from the global south. American Journal of Distance Education, 24(2), 65-80.

Kumar, M. (2005). From open resources to educational opportunity. ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology, 13(3), 241-247.

Ngimwa, P., & Wilson, T. (2012). An empirical investigation of the emergent issues around OER adoption in sub-Saharan Africa. Learning, Media and Technology, 37(4), 398-413.

Ossiannilsson, E. I., & Creelman, A. M. (2012). OER, resources for learning--experiences from an OER project in Sweden. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, (1).

Petrides, L., & Jimes, C. (2008). Building open educational resources from the ground up: South Africa's free high school science texts. Journal of Interactive Media in Education.

Phelan, L. (2012). Politics, practices, and possibilities of open educational resources. Distance Education, 33(2), 279-282.

Richter, T., & McPherson, M. (2012). Open educational resources: Education for the world?. Distance Education, 33(2), 201-219.

Wiley, D., Hilton, J., Ellington, S., & Hall, T. (2012). A preliminary examination of the cost savings and learning impacts of using open textbooks in middle and high school science classes. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,13(3), 262-276.

Willems, J., & Bossu, C. (2012). Equity considerations for open educational resources in the globalization of education. Distance Education, 33(2), 185-199.

Wilson, T. (2008). New ways of mediating learning: Investigating the implications of adopting open educational resources for tertiary education at an institution in the United Kingdom as compared to one in South Africa. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1), 1-19.