The Future of OER in Higher Education

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Tuesday, May 7, 2024
By Lindsay Josephs
Photo by iStock/artisteer
Instructors now have more ways than ever to use open materials to mitigate resource limitations and address student skill gaps.
  • Open educational resources can be integrated into college courses to make higher education more engaging, accessible, and affordable for students.
  • The advent of generative artificial intelligence provides instructors with new, more efficient ways to develop and update OER so that these materials stay aligned with evolving trends and course objectives.
  • Many microcredentialing courses now use OER, which allows students to develop in-demand skills without paying the high cost of traditional higher education.

The past few years have brought drastic changes to higher education, in both how students learn and how instructors teach. Whether due to increases in remote and hybrid learning during the COVID-19 pandemic or the growing prominence of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), business educators have had to adapt to change quickly, often without much institutional support.

Even through all this upheaval, textbooks have remained the most popular course material in higher education, according to a survey conducted by the research firm Bay View Analytics. However, increasingly instructors are replacing print materials such as hardcopy textbooks and homework handouts with digital options such as online textbooks and homework assistance platforms. Instructors also have embraced open educational resources (OER). Bay View’s data also show that the percentage of educators using OER as required course materials nearly doubled between the 2019–20 and 2022–23 academic years, from 15 percent to 29 percent.

Creative Commons defines OER as “teaching, learning, and research materials that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” Lacking traditional copyright restrictions, these materials permit instructors to engage more easily in the 5Rs: remixing, retaining, revising, reusing, and redistributing the materials.

These materials offer many benefits for instructors and students, addressing both existing and emerging challenges. But today, the versatility of OER is evolving with the advent of GenAI and the increasing popularity of alternative, skills-based educational paths. The latest developments in OER are allowing instructors and business programs to create and use these resources to make the educational experience more engaging, accessible, and relevant to all learners.

The Challenges of Print

Regardless of institution size or course level, business instructors and students collectively face several common challenges when using traditional print-based course materials:

Cost—Most faculty responding to Bay View’s survey view the cost of educational materials as “a serious problem” for their students. Postsecondary students spend, on average, between 628 USD and 1,200 USD annually on textbooks and related resources. In some cases, students have reported that they take fewer classes, withdraw from courses, change their majors, or even drop out of college entirely because they cannot afford required materials. Others have reported that they skip meals or take on additional part-time jobs and shifts at work to afford their textbooks.

Print textbooks often contain outdated information and data, but it’s no longer sufficient for students to view graphs using information that is several years old.

Time—It can take several days or weeks for students to purchase the required materials for their classes. Moreover, knowing that many students forgo buying required materials because of cost, instructors often feel that they must derive core course content directly from the textbook. As a result, they must divert class time away from experiential learning, hindering their ability to teach students effectively.

Relevance—Print textbooks often contain outdated information and data, but it’s no longer sufficient for students to view graphs related to economic productivity or income inequality using information that is several years old. Likewise, it is no longer appropriate for students to read case studies from once-prominent sectors and companies whose significance is sharply declining, as they are supplanted by new and growing industries. In today’s data-driven age, it’s essential for students to have access to the most recent analytics and quantitative research. 

Customization—The rise of remote learning and GenAI has heightened the need for instructors to personalize classroom resources and experiences to meet individual students’ needs. This is very difficult to do in introductory business courses with hundreds of students—and nearly impossible to do with commercially published print textbooks.

The OER option helps instructors address these issues. Available in the public domain or under an open license, OER can be customized to align with course objectives and amended with updated information and data. For instance, instructors can update an existing chart or graph with newer data or replace an older case study with one involving an industry or company more relevant to today’s students.

Because these resources are free, students do not have to decide how or whether they can afford required textbooks. Likewise, instructors can teach with confidence, knowing that all students have required course materials on the first day of class.

When OER Meets GenAI

The rise of GenAI is reshaping OER just as it is reshaping higher education. Institutions are experimenting with GenAI to streamline time-consuming tasks involved with planning and teaching a course—and this can include finding, creating, and implementing OER.

For example, schools such as the University of Texas at San Antonio and West Virginia University in Morgantown offer grants to faculty who implement existing or create original OER to address time and resource barriers. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst now consider their faculty’s OER development in tenure and promotion decisions.

GenAI can help instructors take even more of the legwork out of OER creation and adoption. Artificial intelligence can act as a kind of teaching assistant that instructors can use to quickly complete previously time-consuming tasks, such as:

  • Proofreading and receiving feedback on the OER that they create.
  • Generating descriptive alt text and captions for images.
  • Creating discussion prompts, homework questions, practice problems, and assignments.
  • Finding current examples of industries and companies relevant to today’s students (asking an AI tool, for example, to suggest information related to Instagram instead of MySpace).
  • Finding real-world examples of how certain sectors, organizations, and products apply specific business concepts, such as disruptive innovation or product life cycles.
  • Providing updated information on the business legal environment.
  • Creating assessments and rubrics.
  • Translating existing open-license content into other languages.
  • Updating existing OER with examples that allow increasingly diverse cohorts of undergraduate students to see themselves in the course material. For instance, GenAI can help instructors more easily integrate cases that involve organizations with diverse leadership or entrepreneurs from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Created by and for the educational community, OER can offer instructors a great deal of flexibility and versatility in designing their courses in ways that align with learning objectives and meet student needs. That said, GenAI cannot replace the critical role instructors play in OER creation. Given the murky legality surrounding AI and copyright, business instructors should be transparent about their use of AI and provide appropriate attributions.

Additionally, instructors should fact-check AI outputs such as case studies, examples, and statistics to ensure the information that AI tools provide is correct. There already have been many incidents in which ChatGPT has provided users with false statistics, made-up examples, and other glaring errors—known as hallucinations. Such errors underscore the importance of responsible GenAI use when creating course materials.

Nonetheless, by using GenAI tools responsibly, instructors can significantly streamline OER creation and customization in ways that improve their students’ learning experiences.

OER’s Role in Microcredentials

Employers increasingly rely on microcredentials to fill skills gaps in their workforces and consider microcredentials in place of traditional college degrees. Meanwhile, students are turning to microcredentials to gain in-demand career skills without attending—and paying tuition to—four-year universities. OER adoption is evolving to address the growing interest in these alternative, skills-based educational paths.

One initiative using open materials in microcredentials is OERu, an international network of more than 40 partner universities, including Penn State in State College and BCcampus, a platform that supports postsecondary education in British Columbia, Canada. With funding from UNESCO, the platform offers accredited, online microcredentialing courses based on OER. Each full course consists of a set of micro Open Online Courses (mOOCs), which students worldwide can take for free.

Many universities now have dedicated OER librarians and coordinators to aid instructors in adopting open resources in their classrooms, and others offer courses that train educators to use OER effectively.

After students complete a set of mOOCs that corresponds to a full course, they can obtain academic credit from one of the partner universities by taking a formal assessment. The assessment fees are significantly lower than the cost of full-time study, which means that students can develop in-demand skills without the burden of high tuition costs.

OERu offers a certificate that introduces students to the fundamentals of business and management while providing an overview of business careers across various sectors. This certificate includes 26 mOOCs, whose topics range from an introduction to microeconomics to the foundations of marketing to the skills required to plan and manage organizations.

Institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania offer microcredentials in subjects such as accounting, marketing analytics, and technology management to help MBA students fully prepare for postgraduation employment. For many schools, offering OER-supported microcredentials is a viable, cost-efficient way to attract more prospective students and ensure existing students develop in-demand skills.

Open-Ended Opportunities

Educators who want to introduce OER materials into their classrooms will find that various platforms offer high-quality, timely resources. One option is OpenStax, based out of Rice University in Houston. At OpenStax, we are committed to helping educators find, create, and use OER materials. Our textbook library now includes 16 open business textbooks. Another option is the Open Education Network (OEN), a consortium based at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Comprising more than 330 educational institutions, the OEN offers an Open Textbook Library with 1,459 open textbooks, including more than 130 business titles.

Educators also can find relevant OER on other platforms—often within their own institutions. Many universities now have dedicated OER librarians and coordinators to aid instructors in adopting open resources in their classrooms. For example, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln provides a guide on OER directed to campus librarians, and the OEN even offers a certificate in open education librarianship. Unite!, an alliance of European universities, has developed its own course to train educators on using OER effectively.

Open educational resources offer a range of opportunities for educators not only to enhance students’ educational experiences, but also to reach broader audiences. Fortunately, learning how to adopt, create, and improve OER has never been easier. Educators can simply conduct a quick Internet search, meet with their institutions’ OER librarians or program coordinators, chat with a colleague—or even ask ChatGPT—to point themselves in the right direction.

Lindsay Josephs
Demand Generation Specialist, OpenStax
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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