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The Open Course Library of the Washington State Colleges

Tom Caswell

I will describe an initiative of the Washington state community and technical colleges called the Open Course Library (OCL). The Open Course Library is a large-scale curriculum redesign effort leveraging a variety of existing Open Educational Resources (OER) as well as original content by our faculty course designers. I will also discuss the advantages of open educational content that prompted our state agency to invest in the development of education content and to require the resulting digital course materials be shared under a Creative Commons open license. To give context to the Open Course Library I will start by providing some background on our college system, our Strategic Technology Plan, and the formal adoption of an open licensing policy.

The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) is an organization that provides leadership and coordination for Washington’s public system of 34 community and technical colleges. Based on the current Annual Enrollment Report (PDF), the number of students attending our colleges is 470,000 and climbing. This is the highest enrollment level in SBCTC history, with most of the increase due to growth in eLearning. One reason for this growth is that more students are able to fit school into their busy schedules by attending hybrid and fully online classes.

Technology certainly plays a role in making educational opportunities available to a wider population of students. For example, colleges in Washington are able to offer students a broader range of courses through a network called Washington Online system-shared courses. This “pooled enrollment” model allows smaller colleges to extend their course offerings to include those of partner colleges. At the same time it provides a way for colleges offering less common courses to fill them with students from other colleges. SBCTC provides the technology and system-level policies to enable system-shared courses.

In 2008, SBCTC released its Strategic Technology Plan (PDF) to provide clear policy direction around a single goal: mobilizing technology to increase student success. One of the guiding principles of the plan is to “cultivate the culture and practice of using and contributing to open educational resources” (p. 17). With a clear plan in place the next step was to provide opportunities, incentives, and policies to promote OER in our system. On June 17, 2010 the nine-member State Board for Community and Technical Colleges unanimously approved the first state-level open licensing policy (PDF). It requires that all digital works created from competitive grants administered through SBCTC carry a Creative Commons Attribution-only (CC-BY) license. This license allows educational materials created by one college to be used or updated by another college in our system as well as by other education partners globally. Allowing the free flow of all educational content produced by State Board competitive grant funds is an efficient way to engage in the OER movement while maintaining a focus on the specific needs of Washington’s community and technical college students.

Building on the Strategic Technology Plan, eLearning Director Cable Green launched the Open Course Library in 2010, an initiative to design and openly share 81 high enrollment, gatekeeper and pre-college courses. The goals of the OCL project include:

  1. lowering textbook costs for students,
  2. providing new resources for faculty to use in their courses, and
  3. fully engaging in the global open educational resources discussion.

OCL participants are selected through a competitive grant proposal process. Each winning faculty member or team of faculty designs one course. Each of the 81 course teams is directly supported by a librarian, two instructional designers, and an eLearning director. All teams receive additional support from two institutional researchers, 2 accessibility specialists, and a multicultural expert.

Another important consideration is how we will share the 81 OCL courses at the end of each phase. Internal sharing is easy because of our existing WAOL system-shared courses framework. We will include a copy of the full course in our share course system so it can be viewed and copied by faculty in any of our 34 colleges. For external sharing we have partnered with Connexions and with the Saylor Foundation. Connexions will host our downloadable course packages in two popular formats and Saylor.org will make our course content modular and easy to search and view online.

Open Course Library development will occur in two phases. The first 42 courses are being developed in phase 1, to be released in fall 2011. The remaining courses will be designed in phase 2 and completed by early 2013. Each phase is spread over four college quarters. In phase 1, the first two quarters (summer/fall 2010) were spent designing course objectives, finding appropriate OER content, and creating assessments that aligned with the content. Faculty course designers worked closely with their assigned instructional designers (IDs) during this time to ensure that assignments and assessments are tied to course objectives. Faculty then pilot taught their newly designed curriculum at their college during the third quarter (winter 2011). They used feedback from two peer reviews and the course pilot to make updates to the course during the fourth quarter (spring 2011). Phase 2 will follow the same, four-quarter timeline and will benefit from lessons learned in phase 1.

It is important to emphasize that SBCTC will not mandate the use of Open Course Library materials within our system. But we are already getting positive feedback from students who are grateful they don’t have to pay $200 for a textbook. Because these are open, digital resources anyone will be able to access, modify, adapt, translate, and improve the Open Course Library materials. The cost of making a million copies of digital materials is not much more than the cost of the first copy, and print-on-demand solutions are making print copies very affordable as well.

As we look beyond the content development process, the next major challenge is to increase the adoption of these OCL courses. We will start by making it as easy as possible for our faculty to find, browse, and copy OCL course content. We will train newly hired faculty so they are aware of the Open Course Library content available to them as they are developing their lesson materials. Other ideas include adoption incentives for faculty who teach with OCL courses for several quarters. In addition to boosting adoption, this would also give us an opportunity to measure student performance in OCL vs. regular courses. As we look for ways to encourage a culture of OER use and sharing in Washington’s community and technical colleges we must create opportunities for Open Course Library content to be adopted, updated, maintained, and shared back with our system and with the world.

3 Responses to “The Open Course Library of the Washington State Colleges”

  1. tom4cam

    For an interesting, related discussion on The Chronicle of Higher Education blog, see the article entitled “Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources.” http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/publishers

    Open educational resources have improved to the point where leaders should seriously consider using them rather than proprietary educational materials. Furthermore, when funding new educational resources development in the future, leaders should require contractors to publish materials with an open license.

    The Open Course Library provides a more efficient model for creating and organizing digital curriculum — an open model that is designed to be shared, translated, updated and improved. Open licensing in educational materials is an efficiency whose time has come.

  2. The Open Course Library initiative in Washington State is a pioneering project which demonstrates that this can be done at a provincial and possibly national level.

    I look forward to seeing national governments replicating your approaches and contributing back to the ecosystem. Policy-makers worldwide should be taking a closer look at what SBCTC are doing — its a window on the future of state-funded education provision.

  3. Mary Frances

    It's a great idea, but only if it is fully accessible. If SBCTC can just resolve their IT problems so that students and faculty can actually access the resources, this initiative is a wonderful solution to curbing educational costs. I have a real problem, however, with a system that crashes the week before finals. It is entirely unfair to students who have worked hard all quarter, only to be stopped from completing coursework by computer downtime. I am confident that progress will be made in this area so all may benefit.


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