Cheaper, more accessible open access learning

Open Access Week highlights promising tools, hopes to raise student/faculty awareness, adoption

Digital content services like iTunes and Netflix are changing how people consume music and entertainment, so what stops universities from using technology to make education cheaper and more accessible?

This question became a hot topic at TRU during Open Access Week, which took place from Oct. 20 to Oct. 26. The TRU Library sponsored a series of workshops and seminars to give faculty, staff and students insight into how existing but under-adopted digital tools could improve the student learning experience at TRU.

“This is the third year in a row that TRU Library has sponsored Open Access Week events,” said librarian Penny Haggarty. Open Access Week, which started in 2007, is an event that universities around the world acknowledge annually.

Last Tuesday, Haggarty and Brenda Smith spoke about open access journals, which are published online free of cost and allow users to copy and distribute the contents freely (with proper attribution, of course).

“Journal price increases have far exceeded increases in library budgets,” Haggarty explains. “Not even the largest and richest academic libraries in the world have been immune from these pressures.”

In the wake of cancelled subscriptions and compromises in other scholarly resources, Haggarty sees open access journals as “a means for institutions to provide access to their scholarly work without the burden of expensive journal licensing programs.”

TRU Library is also involved with the BC Institutional Repository Network and considering developing its own repository.

“Should TRU choose to fund and implement an institutional repository, the institution would be able to manage, store, preserve and provide access to digital content, including…open access journals,” Haggarty said.

Brian Lamb demonstrates how WordPress can enhance a digital class- room. (Ryan Turcot/The Omega)

Brian Lamb demonstrates how WordPress can enhance a digital class-
room. (Ryan Turcot/The Omega)

The open access conversation later shifted away from libraries – TRU’s director of innovation, Brian Lamb, spoke about how existing and readily available open access tools could improve the classroom.

“There’s a provincial open textbook program here and a lot of faculty don’t know about it,” Lamb said. “A lot of students don’t know about it.”

The program Lamb is referring to is BCcampus’s Open Textbook Project. It is funded by the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education and works to provide faculty and students with free, digital copies of openly licensed textbooks as well as low-cost hard copies.

Lamb notes that the student voice will play a significant role in the success of an open textbook system.

“If students don’t make it understood that they would like to see this happen, it won’t happen,” Lamb said.

He urges students to do so respectfully, and “recognize that there isn’t an open textbook for every course, or that there may be a good reason for instructors doing what they do.”

When Lamb spoke about the Learning Management Systems TRU currently uses in its classes (Moodle and Blackboard), a weakness became clear to librarian Elizabeth Rennie: “Teaching students to become proficient in Moodle or Blackboard…is only of so much use if they’re never going to use the systems again [after they graduate].”

Lamb believes this presents a missed opportunity for students to learn employable skills. During his seminar, Lamb demonstrated how an online learning environment could be created using WordPress, the content management system that powers over 20 per cent of websites on the world wide web. Lamb also noted that TRU implemented its own wiki earlier this year, and MediaWiki is a collaborative tool based on the same source code that powers Wikipedia. By learning tools like these, Lamb said “these students will have something to point to. If they’re applying for a job in an office, they can say ‘I can build a website. Here’s an example.’”

Carolyn Teare, who also attended Lamb’s seminar on Wednesday, is working on her own open access project for the TRU Open Learning OERu.

OERu.org allows students to register and take online courses for free, then apply for formal academic assessments to get credits towards a credential.

Lamb concluded the Open Access Week events by giving faculty, staff and students a chance to try various open education resources for themselves.

He said that feedback will play an important role in TRU’s open access innovations.

“I really depend on student feedback to tell me whether what I’m doing is helpful,” he said.

“If one student tells me they find something confusing, there are probably 10 to 100 others who feel the same way. If there are things students want to do that I am not doing now or planning to do, I can guarantee I won’t do it if a student doesn’t ask for it. I can’t promise I will implement everything a student asks for, but I can definitely promise that I’ll listen carefully, take it seriously and investigate it.”