Open Education at B.C. Private Post-Secondary Institutions

Similar to public institutions, private colleges and universities in B.C. are progressively incorporating open educational resources (OER) into their curricula. What obstacles do they encounter, and what does the future hold for the adoption of OER in these establishments?

by Lauri Aesoph, manager, Open Education Operations, BCcampus

B.C. is home to 19 private degree-granting colleges and universities and over 500 private training institutions. Like public post-secondary institutions, many of these schools have taken steps to incorporate open educational resources (OER) into their courses or contribute to the B.C. Open Collection through book reviews or authoring open textbooks such Building a Competitive First Nation Investment Climate from the Tulo Centre of Indigenous Economics. Others join open ed groups such as the BC Open Education Librarians (BCOEL). BCcampus has almost 20 private institutions on its Known Adoptions spreadsheet.

Representatives from four private institutions were interviewed about the state of open education at their college or university. These conversations began with a description of the campuses. Typically, private post-secondary institutions are smaller than public post-secondary schools, although all four interviewed reported substantial growth in numbers of students and faculty in the past few years; in some cases, the number and size of their campuses also expanded. The four participating schools are primarily comprised of international students, and their faculty are primarily sessional instructors.

Colin Madland, manager of Online Learning and Instructional Technologies at Trinity Western University, has experienced open education in both the private setting and in his previous position as coordinator for Educational Technologies at Thompson Rivers University. The biggest differences he noticed between the two are the “lack of resourcing and lack of awareness around the possibilities of open education.” When he began at Trinity Western University seven years ago, he discovered he was among the first on campus to talk about open and online education. That step ultimately led to the school hiring three full-time instructional designers and Madland becoming one of its open ed advocates.

The Challenges

Private colleges and universities face many of the same challenges as public post-secondary institutions when it comes to open education, such as concerns from their communities that free content is too good to be true or authors’ fear people will steal their content if they release it with an open license. 

Private institutions also face unique challenges. One example, says Joe Munsterman, sociology instructor and open education advocate at Alexander College and Regional Leader of Open Education participant, is being exempt from grants where a qualifying criterion is that the applying institution is public. Qinqin Zhang, reference librarian at Trinity Western University, concurs and says less funding and heavy teaching loads make it difficult for faculty who want to develop or evaluate OER for a course.

Acsenda School of Management has a further complication when it comes to OER, says Ali de Haan, manager of Library and Instructional Services. Because many of its programs and courses are aligned with professional organizations, these groups participate in the textbook vetting process.

Nicoletta Romano, manager of the Library and Learning Commons at University Canada West, says there are so many sessional instructors at the school — many who don’t teach full-time — that it’s difficult to establish a consistent and clear understanding about open education among instructors. Another stumbling block is that for many University Canada West instructors and students, English is not their first language, which can make it challenging to describe OER concepts and how they relate to copyright. Regardless, Romano has attempted to make inroads through her participation in the school’s Open Educational Resource Committee, formed in 2019, which has improved faculty and leadership open education buy-in.

Similarly, at the behest of Alexander College’s administration, Joe Munsterman will lead a session about how faculty can conduct pre- and post-assessments of OER for their courses as part of a professional day in the near future, similar to a presentation he made at the Private Degree Granting Institutions Association conference in 2023.

The Advantages

Size creates challenges for a small institution when it comes to open education, but it can also serve as an opportunity to more easily introduce OER into a school’s curricula. Over half the courses at Alexander College, for example, list an open textbook or other OER as resource options, an initiative that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulted in its librarians, Caitlin Lindsay and Janelle Haley, writing a resource guide in spring 2020 that devoted substantial attention to OER.

“Many of the students at Alexander don’t have a lot of money,” says Joe Munsterman. “A lot come from India, and their parents are bankrolling school costs, so money is tight when it comes to textbooks.” The college’s faculty are aware of this and know if a textbook is free, their students will have and read the book or at the very least be able to access it. In Munsterman’s experience, when a commercial textbook is assigned to a course because no open textbook is available, only about 10 percent of students will buy it.

A journal article by Caitlin Lindsay about the college’s success in this area was submitted to and published by the British Columbia Library Association in 2021.

University Canada West is taking similar actions. The 2021–2022 annual report from the school’s OER Committee indicated that of the 67 courses presented to the academic council, 13 new courses and seven existing ones were approved to adopt OER, affecting more than 29 percent of the university’s classes. In the past two years, another 15 courses were approved to be taught using OER. A recently launched guided study manual that covers four hours of training on OER has also garnered a lot more interest in OER by faculty.

While many institutions view having faculty that are mainly sessional instructors as a disadvantage, Ali de Haan sees the situation as a win because “they are always looking for a way to contribute more to the school and make their mark.”

At Trinity Western University, there is growing recognition of how the school can reach students around the globe rather than only having international students come to Canada. The school now offers courses to students living in China, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, with sights on other African nations. One of the challenges is ensuring students have physical textbooks. This problem, says Colin Madland, has Trinity faculty realizing open textbooks — usually used online — are a good option.

The Future

Alexander College sees the adaptability of OER as a bonus as it aims to make its textbooks globally accessible for international students. Instructors need to cater their references and examples to the backgrounds of their students if they want them to succeed, says Munsterman: “I call it removing the barrier of cultural overtime.” Work on a broader strategic open education plan, including a goal to find OER for more courses, is also in progress.

The Associate of Arts program at University Canada West is committed to the strategic goal of ensuring 41 percent of its courses have at least one section that is fully taught with OER.

While an OER library guide and local instance of Pressbooks are in place at Trinity Western University, Qinqin Zhang would like to work with other stakeholders on campus to do more public open ed events on behalf of her institution, such as Open Education week.

Using a slow and steady approach, with a newly established open ed plan and working group, Ali de Haan hopes Acsenda can offer its first round of open ed projects this fall. “We will also continue helping our faculty understand the value of OER not just in terms of cost,” she says, “but also in what is taught and how it can be more easily used to supplement material from professional organizations as well as be responsive to new trends and issues.” 

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