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U.S. Government Funding For Open Education Materials a “Game Changer”

Appeared on February 27, 2011 in the Toronto Star as U.S. digital project signals the rise of versatile e-textbooks

The technology community is fond of referring to announcements that fundamentally alter a sector or service as a “game changer”. Recent examples include the debut of the Apple iTunes store in 2003, which demonstrated how a digital music service that responds to consumer demands was possible, and Google’s Gmail, which upended web-based email in 2004 by offering 1 gigabyte of storage when competitors like Microsoft’s Hotmail were providing a paltry 2 megabytes.

Last month, the U.S. government announced its own game changer, though it attracted far less attention than iTunes or Gmail. Led by the Departments of Labor and Education, it committed US$2 billion toward a new program to create free online teaching and course materials for post-secondary programs of two years or less.

There are other open educational resource initiatives – the State of California’s Digital Textbook Initiative has led to the open availability of dozens of texts – but nothing that approaches the scale of the new U.S. program. By injecting $500 million per year for four years, the initiative will offer “free, high-quality curriculum and employment training opportunities within reach of anyone who has access to the Internet.” As a condition of funding, all materials will carry the Creative Commons BY licence, which permits their free derivative use for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.

Interest in open educational materials has been mounting steadily in recent years as educators and funders seek to leverage the millions of articles that are freely available under open access licences and to develop flexible materials that can be used on any platform and updated or amended without running into publisher or copyright barriers.

Cost is obviously also a significant consideration since school budgets face increases in book and royalty costs that often far outpace other expenditures. The shift toward an open educational resource model may still provide payment to authors, but it adopts a different approach from the conventional royalty-based system. Authors are often paid upfront for their work in return for unlimited access and the ability for others to build on their works. 

From a Canadian perspective, there are genuine risks that domestic materials will be forgotten as schools gravitate toward the U.S. funded free alternatives. In fact, a recent study commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage on the academic publishing industry acknowledged that the availability of alternative and digital resources represented a substantial risk to the publishing industry.

For Canadian educators, the challenge will be to supplement the freely available materials with Canadian context. Some Canadian universities have already jumped on the bandwagon: Athabasca University in Alberta is aiming to replace many of its course materials with open educational resources, while the BCcampus initiative brings together 25 post-secondary institutions to contribute and share open educational resources. 

Recent developments provide an exceptional opportunity for both federal and provincial governments to build on the open educational resource movement by committing funding to new initiatives as well as efforts to “Canadianize” freely available materials. Moreover, granting institutions such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada could work on integrating their funded research into course materials. 

Non-governmental organizations such as the Canadian Legal Information Institute, which provides free access to thousands of legal cases, could build a “universal casebook” that offers free access to all cases studies by Canadian law students (I am a CanLII board member).

Creating and adopting these new materials will not happen overnight, but it seems likely that years from now students will look back at the little-noticed announcement in January 2011 as the moment when access to educational materials was forever changed.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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