If You Plant It, They Will Come

oranges on a treeI’ve recently been asked to provide recommendations to a statewide advisory committee on the use of e-textbooks and open educational resources (OER) in online courses at public colleges and universities around Florida. While I focused on OER and open access textbooks such as those available from projects such as OpenStax College, Connexions, Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, OER Commons, and Project Gutenberg, the rest of the committee was focused on resources from commercial publishers and the ancillary materials they provide. Somehow they took e-textbooks and OER to mean the same thing, and they are decidedly not. I’m choosing here to focus on the state of OER and open access materials in Florida.

Florida Statute 1004.085 (2012) and Florida Board of Governors policy 8.003 provide guidelines for the adoption of textbooks and course materials that are affordable to students in Florida public colleges and universities. Past initiatives have sought to encourage the use of e-textbooks and open educational resources but the availability of materials and available technologies were extremely limited. Florida’s Orange Grove (TOG) is a digital repository for OER, including open textbooks and learning objects, for educators to search, use, remix, contribute to, comment on, and rate. The repository can be integrated with a variety of learning management systems, and enables users to search from directly within The Orange Grove for resources located in other repositories or harvested resources found within the repository. TOG is a model resource that is recognized around the country and includes resources for both K-12 and higher education learning. Several institutions in Florida have developed their own repositories for reusable learning objects that can be shared, including the University of Central Florida’s Obojobo.

The problem with The Orange Grove is that it is not funded or formally staffed. Reusable learning objects and resources in TOG are difficult to find and vary widely in quality, making it difficult for users to identify meaningful resources for their courses. Florida needs a statewide repository for quality, reusable electronic learning objects for open use across institutions. This effort would promote cross-institution collaboration and sharing. The management, updating and maintenance, and funding of TOG repository should be a priority or another repository should be adopted/developed in its place. TOG needs updating technologically, and issues such as funding, quality assurance of included resources, accessibility and usability, and how to promote its use by instructors statewide should be discussed. Implementing some system for both instructors and students to rate resources, akin to the MERLOT approach. MERLOT, or Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching, started in 1997, has tools for instructors and students to create their own digital resources and also supports its own open textbook initiative that includes a quality peer review process.

If Florida wants to get serious about promoting OER and open access materials to make learning more affordable to students in Florida colleges and universities, then it needs to look at planting the next generation of The Orange Grove, one that is funded and properly farmed, focusing on promoting collaboration and sharing across institutions.