Opinion piece: There is already a solution for easing high cost of post-secondary textbooks

Some colleagues and I recently wrote an opinion piece for the Calgary Herald, arguing for provincial support for open educational resources. Below is a preview.

Less well-known is the fact that the cost of textbooks and other learning materials has been increasing well above the rate of inflation for decades. According to a 2014 CBC article, textbook costs have increased more than 800 per cent since the 1980s — more than double Canadian house price increases and triple the rate of the consumer price index. And in many cases, students no longer buy physical books they can resell but instead rent digital books.

Students are also unable to rely on their libraries to access textbooks, as publishers have stopped selling physical copies, forcing academic libraries to pay thousands for electronic versions, which they often cannot afford.

While the Alberta government has said it is paying close attention to the situation, British Columbia, Ontario and other provinces already have a solution: funding open educational resources. 

Provinces such as British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario have invested relatively modest amounts to develop resources such as open textbooks which function as a viable alternative to publisher resources. Alberta had a relatively successful OER pilot program which ran from 2014 to 2017. I had the privilege to be part of that project and work with faculty across Alberta. The pilot was done in partnership with BC Campus. While Mount Royal (where I work), SAIT, the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and others are doing great work to support open content, some support from the province to create some funding opportunities, and perhaps some shared hosting infrastructure, would be a good investment for post-secondary.

Article link: https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-there-is-already-a-solution-for-easing-high-cost-of-post-secondary-textbooks

New paper: Examining the technological and pedagogical elements of select open courseware

First Monday journal logo

I’m pleased that my colleague Dr. Michael McNally (Ualberta SLIS) and I have published a new paper in First Monday titled “Examining the technological and pedagogical elements of select open courseware.”

The paper is non-traditional in both its focus and method, but it’s a step toward answering some research questions Michael and I have. Specifically, what does openness in education mean, what are the factors that constitute openness, and what does openness look like on a spectrum? In our previous paper (a thought experiment) we addressed these questions from a philosophical perspective. In this new paper, we wanted to know how ‘open’ open courseware (OCW) actually is. We focused on open courseware because we feel it’s an important component of open education, but it’s often overshadowed by open textbooks. This was a small study, where we randomly selected ten open courses – five from MIT and five from TU Delft. The sample is too small to generalize to all open courseware. Analyzing all the course materials in this sample was challenging, so a larger research team (or narrower focus) would be necessary to replicate this approach across a larger sample. We selected courses from these two institutions because of their similar focus on STEM; though, both institutions do have courses from other disciplines. Ultimately, we got a good mix of courses after running our randomizer formula in Excel. We analyzed the openness of each course using the framework we proposed in our previous paper. So, this paper is part analysis and part proof of concept. Below are our research questions from the paper.

Question 1: Based on the eight factors of openness in the framework, how open are the sampled OCW?

Question 2: Are the sampled OCW adequately designed for educator reuse or adaptation?

There are quite a few findings, but I’ll give a couple of highlights. First, we found the framework (called ‘Open Enough’) functioned reasonably well as a rubric for OCW evaluation, though it had some shortcomings. We proposed a revised version of the framework in the discussion. We also found that despite the name ‘open courseware’, the openness of these courses was a mixed bag, at least when evaluating them using our eight factors of analysis. Our results and discussion sections are long, but the paper includes a summary of the findings.

The level of openness across the sampled OCW was inconsistent. From a copyright perspective, the OCW were mixed as they employed an institutional licence across all content — a CC-NC-SA licence. In terms of adherence to accessibility standards, MIT courses were most open while TU Delft were closed. We determined accessibility openness by reviewing each OCW platform’s statement regarding which accessibility standards were observed. From a usability perspective, we concluded that TU Delft has the more modern interface, but MIT courses were more navigable. All courses (except one) were categorized as closed since the course content was offered in one language. The majority of support costs (course readings) were proprietary and many of the courses relied heavily on paid books. Two TU Delft courses were the exception to this rule; one course’s readings were completely custom (presumably written by the instructor), and another course made its proprietary ebook openly available (albeit with a closed licence). All of the sampled courses were very open in terms of digital distribution. Each course could be located using several federated OER search engines. Surprisingly, the sampled courses were categorized as closed in terms of file format, as all relied heavily on PDF content. We struggled with the cultural considerations factor, given the large volume of content and the factor’s subjective nature. Courses were split between closed and mixed/most open. Course content dictated this conclusion, as STEM courses materials were determined to be more culturally applicable, broadly speaking.

Given the limited editability of the course materials, we concluded that the sampled OCW were better suited for learner consumption rather than educator reuse. The lack of editability was surprising and severely limits these courses’ utility outside their originating institutions. These findings highlight the importance of prioritizing OCW for editability and adaptability, in addition to making them discoverable to the broader community.

Since writing this paper, MIT OpenCourseWare has redesigned its website which presents more opportunities for analysis, particularly usability and discoverability. This was an interesting project to be part of and I’m glad it’s finally published. I’d like to thank First Monday for publishing this piece, and the paper is available as an open access article from the journal website.

Citation: Christiansen, E., & McNally, M. (2022, Oct 5). Examining the technical and pedagogical elements of select open courseware. First Monday, 27(10). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v27i10.11639

Manuscript and figures

Op-Ed: Open educational resources would make post-secondary costs more affordable

assorted books on wooden table

The following article was published in the Edmonton Journal by myself, Chaten Jessel (University of Calgary) and Michael McNally (University of Alberta) highlighting the benefits of provincial government funding for open educational resources in Alberta. OER are highlighted as a strategy for the Alberta 2030 post-secondary plan. We argue that the current conservative government could easily resurrect the OER pilot project, which was initiated by the previous conservative government in 2014, and put aside a small annual grant to fund resource development in the province.

Article link: https://edmontonjournal.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-open-educational-resources-would-make-post-secondary-costs-more-affordable

In 2014, the Alberta government funded the provincial OER initiative — a pilot project designed to promote OER in the province. This program was eventually ended, but the Alberta OER archive is still available. Open textbook adoptions were projected to save students $5.5 million over five years.

The government could make meaningful progress on open education in Alberta over the next 18 months. Here are three steps the government could take.

– Reinstate the Alberta OER initiative by providing a modest annual grant: The money could be used to fund OER projects throughout the province. The majority of the funds should be distributed as small grants, to fund educators who want to develop OER materials for their classes. The remaining funds could be used to track student savings and prevent duplication by encouraging co-ordination and co-operation across the province.

– Recruit educators to volunteer on the Alberta OER initiative: The previous initiative comprised many volunteers from the post-secondary sector, and there are many skilled people across the province who would be willing to administer the grant and plan OER related events.

– Develop partnerships with other provinces: There are numerous OER initiatives going on in provinces like B.C., Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada. Through establishing partnerships, Alberta could benefit from the knowledge, expertise, and already made OER that other groups have.

Alberta OER Summit 2019 presentation: #aboerjc

The Alberta OER Summit took place on June 21st, 2019 at NorQuest College, Edmonton, AB. It was a wonderful meeting, and I’d like to thank Robert Lawson at NorQuest for organizing the event and for inviting me to speak about our provincial journal club project. We have a great OER community in Alberta and it’s events like this that keep the momentum going.

Below is a link to the presentation slides from Mount Royal University’s Institutional Repository.


OE Global 2018 Presentation Slides

Thank you to all who attended my session at OE Global 2018 in Delft, Netherlands. What a massive turnout! The room was packed and there were excellent questions from participants! I have posted my PowerPoint slides for you to view. If you have any questions about this research paper or the presentation, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Mount Royal University Institutional Repository Link: http://hdl.handle.net/11205/366

Spring conference tour 2017



This spring marked the last conference presentation, and it was a good one.

The Alberta Library Conference (ALC), which is held at the Jasper Park Lodge annually, is a beautiful venue. Attending the conference is as much a getaway as “work event,” which explains the number of smiling faces.

This year I was lucky enough to speak to academic, public, and some school librarians about the library’s role in the open education movement in Canada. Speaking at ALC is fun but it poses a challenge insofar that there librarians from various sectors. As a speaker, one wants to create something that’s meaningful to everyone.

I’ve addressed the topics of the open education movement and open educational resources several times. This particular presentation covered a lot of ground:

  • OER and the open education movement
  • OER policy in Western Canada (this is my primary research project)
  • A discussion about OER and the public library
  • Examples of ways the public library can support open education
  • Challenges to OER

About two-thirds of this presentation was me talking, but I tried something a little different this time around. First, before launching into my own ideas about the public library’s role in open education I posed two questions to the audience.

  1. Are there patrons, or specific groups, that would benefit from OER in any way?
  2. Can you think of an experience you had when you were trying to help a patron find some information where an OER might have been helpful

Literature about the public library and OER is greatly underrepresented, and I made specific mention of that in the presentation. The participants were extremely vocal and their examples were quite surprising.

Some identified patrons / groups included high-school students, those looking for career changes, second language learners, not-for-profit employees, internationally trained professionals, people with access barriers (health and otherwise), and people looking to start their own business. These examples give an idea of the variety of patrons the public library is expected to serve. While the participants admitted to using some good commercial products, there are still resources not available for purchase. OER can fill this void, but many of the participants were unaware of the repositories that exist. This underscores one of the primary shortfalls of OER – a general lack of awareness.

It is my presumption that public libraries are equally – if not better – suited to advancing OER awareness. They have broader needs than academic or special libraries, and they service a wider segment of the population.

Participants’ answer to the second questions was equally surprising. Responses included programming lesson plans for robotics and STEM, examples of in-depth reference questions (I presume for training purposes), resources for children to keep up with their school studies, homeschooling resources, and oral histories. Again, this demonstrates a wider need than academia which is largely focused on course plans and textbooks.

At the end of the talk, I encouraged participants to ask if there were resources they wanted that were not covered in the presentation. I also asked them where they’d like to see scholarship on this topic published. In response to the latter, one participant suggested a K-12 or teacher librarian publication that’s open access.

I think public libraries are largely underrepresented in the OER literature and, given the thoughtful feedback and positive reactions to this presentation, I’m considering what such a publication would look like.

Presentation slides