A Horizontal Move in the Right Direction

A horizontal approach to open educational resources reaches the most students in the quickest way possible, writes Daniel Williamson.

October 26, 2017
 
 
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As a longtime advocate of open educational resources, I’ve read with great interest recent views and discussions about the different approaches to funding such resources, which offer free alternatives to textbook and other instructional materials that students have traditionally had to pay for.

One issue of debate involves “vertical” versus “horizontal” funding models and whether the OER community should continue investing in the less flashy horizontal funding initiatives in particular. In a horizontal funding model, funders support the creation of textbooks for high-enrollment courses and subject areas. In contrast, when taking the vertical approach, an institution focuses on building up OER for a single degree program.

OpenStax, founded in 2012, is proud that over 3.5 million students have used a free OpenStax textbook, and we’re continuing to grow. We owe our success, in part, to the generous foundations that have recognized the need for OER and have provided seed money to help our OER get off the ground and up to scale. Since OpenStax has used horizontal funding and seen exponential growth in users and impact, we tend to agree with those who champion it. But we’ve found that one funding model can often enable another, and that developing an either-or mind-set for funding is ultimately unhelpful. Since launching five years ago, OpenStax has chosen to publish open textbooks that meet standard scope and sequence requirements for the highest enrollment courses, such as calculus, psychology and American history. That approach reaches the most students in the quickest way possible and builds momentum for more OER use on a campus.

The results generated from using seed money in a horizontal approach are compelling in how they illustrate current impact and potential impact. Institutions are using more and more OpenStax textbooks -- as many as 15 on a single campus. With increasing demand for OER materials, the number of colleges and universities with higher textbook adoption numbers will inevitably grow.

Those of us in the OER community know that the horizontal approach to scaling works. Foundations and institutions have been supporting a horizontal approach for years with much success -- to date, OpenStax has saved students $340 million. Furthermore, the quality and breadth of the resources generated through a horizontal approach also provide the basis for continued innovation in OER, such as degree initiatives that would require a different kind of funding approach: the vertical model.

Much buzz surrounds this approach to funding, spreading and scaling OER. One notable example came a year ago, when 38 community colleges grabbed headlines with their announcement about an initiative to create two-year degree programs that would use only OER. These zero-textbook-cost degree programs (or z-degree programs) focus on enabling students to complete an entire degree track without spending money on textbooks as well as on empowering faculty members to create and curate course materials.

While vertical programs provide different opportunities for OER use and creation, the materials generated through the funding of horizontal programs are the cornerstone of future OER development. The promise of OER is that faculty members can have the freedom to access, reuse, remix, adapt and redistribute content without having to request permission. But faculty members are busy people, and it takes a lot of time to develop a course, especially if you are starting from scratch. Introductory and widely used content supported by horizontal programs frees faculty members to devote time to content development for higher-level courses, niche courses or courses specific to their institution -- content ideal for vertical initiatives.

Successful horizontal initiatives provide the conditions for successful vertical initiatives. That is why OER producers exist; that is why OpenStax has a steadily growing user base. And that is why it’s important that the OER community continues to support, cultivate and leverage the tremendously effective and proven horizontal approach to funding and content creation.

Bio

Daniel Williamson is managing director at OpenStax, developing education start-ups from conception to culmination, with specialties in open education, content development, ed tech, consumer intelligence, management and quality assurance.

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