Before the state of California uses taxpayer funds to develop “free” online textbooks, lawmakers should consider the possibility that in some cases, perhaps many, these resources may not be used. The British Open University found an answer to this problem back in 1969. Perhaps the United States should emulate the British by creating its own, nationwide Open University.
By Fred M. Beshears
From 1987 to 2007, Fred Beshears worked as an Educational Technologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He now lives in Reno, NV.
In 2007, I presented a plan for addressing the high cost of textbooks to a House committee, headed by Congressman Wu.
My plan proposed that funds be made available to buy-out the high quality online course content routinely developed by the British Open University, a public distance education program started by a Labor government in 1969. They’ve been in the business of developing online courses ever since, and they have a governance structure designed for distance learning. Further, they have an enrollment large enough to create an economy of scale, which is necessary if in-house content development is to be cost effective.
The main pushback I received from faculty and others for my idea was that faculty in the US may not voluntarily use the OU’s content. Generally speaking, faculty in the US cannot be forced to use the content because that would be a violation of their academic freedom.
This is not a problem at the British Open University because their senior faculty are hired specifically to develop content, and their teaching faculty are hired with the understanding that they will use the content developed by the senior faculty. Unlike Governor Newsom’s plan, the British Open University doesn’t leave faculty buy-in up to chance.
Now, one alternative Governor Newsom’s plan, and to my old idea of buying out the British Open University, would be to create a nation-wide Open University in the United States, one patterned after the British Open University. Further, we could fund this university so it could be tuition-free, and we could give it the mandate to put its content in the public domain. That would kill three birds with one stone:
- students in the US could have the option of a tuition-free education,
- the content developed by the US Open University would be used, at least by their own teaching faculty, and
- the content could also be used by all schools as an alternative to commercial textbooks.