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OER: Trial by COVID-19

With the recent and drastic conversion to online learning, we took the opportunity to speak with local librarians and open education experts to better understand the potential consequences of choosing commercial platforms and resources. The costs may be discounted today, but will they remain there after the pandemic? 

Post by BCcampus’ editorial team

The COVID-19 experience has definitely been educational. A mere two months ago, we were looking at events we had planned for 2020, wondering if the rumours of a new virus in China were valid concerns. Fast forward a few weeks, and we had cancelled all in-person events, such as Festival of Learning 2020 — an event we’d been planning and looking forward to for quite a while — and looking at a mass conversion to online learning for all of our system partners. Through online forums, emails, and webinars, we fielded questions from students, faculty, staff, and administrators looking for tools and resources to facilitate the switch. Drawing on our extensive experience with open educational resources (OER), we were able to offer practical, accessible, and affordable solutions. The transition has been a smooth ride for many and an unexpected —­ perhaps unwelcome — experience for others.

At the same time, commercial educational vendors began offering COVID discounts to entice educators to try their programs, platforms, and tools. While many of these resources are familiar, the concern for many of us is what might happen once the pandemic is over and we have adapted to a new normal. Will the discounts continue, and if not, will the post-secondary sector be so deeply immersed in the commercial products that they’re unable to switch to a different model?

“The barriers to access are at an all-time low,” explained Lauri Aesoph, manager of open education at BCcampus. “COVID-19 is a stress test for OER, and OER has risen to the challenge. We were ready, it has functioned well during the transition, and it will endure. OER is sustainable, operational, and educational, and we’re looking forward to introducing it to educators and students throughout the province.”

OER vs. Commercial Publications

Some of the major advantages of OER, specifically open textbooks, over commercial publications include:

  • No end dates — you can use OER for as long as you need
  • Adapt for your needs — you can modify OER to fit your requirements, without asking for permission (attribution is still required, but that’s easy to do)
  • Free use — commercial textbooks are licensed under an “all rights reserved” copyright, whereas open textbooks are built on an open licensing structure
  • Price — digital open textbooks are free, and printed versions are typically available for the cost of printing 
  • Day-one access — students don’t have to wait for accessible versions of open textbooks, as they’re available immediately 

“Budget isn’t the only concern regarding the use of commercial textbooks — some of the commercial learning materials are hard to access, even if you’re paying,” said Lin Brander, open education librarian at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). “They’re not set up for library borrowing, and we aren’t confident that they’ll relinquish the amount of control they have over their textbooks to facilitate effective lending.”

“My concern is that their altruism — giving away their learning materials — is a tactic to be exploited in the future,” said Martin Warkentin, copyright librarian at the University of the Fraser Valley. “The initial offers were extended through April and May; they’re not free forever.”

“One of the concerns shared on the BC ELN listserv,” said Lin, “is that we might add the discounted or temporarily free resources to our library services and databases, where instructors can link and share them to their students, but at the end of the pandemic, these resources would be removed. Many of the post-secondary institutions in B.C. have been approached by commercial vendors to add their content to our libraries, and other than some of the essential COVID-19 health information, at BCIT, we’ve said no to all of the offers.”

“There are great resources available within OER, and with the current situation, the reasons are even more compelling,” said Hope Power, teaching and learning librarian at Simon Fraser University. “OER are great for removing barriers to access, allowing educators to be online from day one. And in terms of financial barriers, the digital products are free, and the costs of printed materials are minimal — far less than a traditional textbook.”

Privacy vs. Convenience 

While most institutions have structured programs in place to protect student privacy — a topic that is top of mind for all administrators — the switch to online learning may bring the potential for security concerns. In B.C., the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA) requires information about citizens to be stored in and only accessed from within Canada, but changes announced at the end of March relaxed some of the rules to allow a broader use of communication tools.

A prepared statement from the provincial government shared, “the public-health emergency has made it necessary for government to temporarily enable the use of technologies that would otherwise be restricted under FOIPPA’s current rules. The global pandemic has changed how the Province, health-care providers and organizations in the broader public sector are working. It has affected the way they need to deliver the services and supports that British Columbians count on.”

“OER, such as open homework systems and open textbooks, don’t collect student data, and privacy is baked in,” explained Clint Lalonde, project manager, open source homework systems at BCcampus. “Commercial resources often include an analytics platform that captures who, how, and what is being used, so the data can be applied to improve the for-profit model. As educators, we cannot waver when it comes to student privacy, even during the current crisis. Hasty decisions today could lead to privacy breaches for students tomorrow, and with the current selection of OER, there’s no need to risk it.”

Now is the Time for OER

The fast-paced transition to online learning environments has been a stress test for OER, and we’re seeing it shine in institutions throughout the province. Most OER is designed to be used in an online environment, and with additional resources being developed regularly, such as the open homework systems project we’re working on, the value and benefits keep growing.

To find out how to build open educational resources into your world, contact your local library or learning resource centre, or visit the BCcampus OpenEd site to learn more about open.

Notable Quote

“Institutions can get up to speed quickly through OER, without compromising student privacy.”


—Clint Lalonde, project manager, open source homework systems, BCcampus

“Much of today’s education still looks like it did during the industrial revolution. The switch to OER can truly revolutionize education, allowing us to rethink our pedagogical approaches, find better ways to  assess learning, and enable students to work on truly meaningful endeavours.”


—Lin Brander, graduate studies librarian, British Columbia Institute of Technology

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