U of A leads project to open access to digital learning across Alberta

New service enables students and instructors to use free online resources, or create their own.

A new collaboration between University of Alberta Libraries and other post-secondary institutions across Alberta is providing students and instructors with the ability to access and create digital learning materials for free.

The service, Open Education Alberta, is a platform that enables the adaptation, creation and use of open education resources (OERs) in post-secondary courses.

OERs are digital learning materials that are openly licenced, said Michelle Brailey, digital initiatives projects librarian and project lead. They are either in the public domain or have been released under a licence that permits their use and repurposing by others, so anyone can use the work without obtaining permission or paying a publisher.

Open Education Alberta provides the platform for instructors across Alberta to take existing OERs and customize them, or create their own.

As universities move to online learning in the wake of COVID-19, “Faculty [members] are already looking at ways to revisit how they’re going to deliver their courses for the fall, and OERs might solve some of the problems that they’re encountering in terms of student access to learning materials,” said project co-lead Cari Merkley, a librarian at Mount Royal University.

With OERs, instructors don’t have to worry about gaining permission to distribute, use or print the materials, and the resources are free for students, said Brailey and Merkley. Students have access to the materials as soon as the course starts, and the materials don’t expire, so they’re accessible after students finish their course.

“That lifelong learning component is awesome. And any member of the community can access these resources; you don’t have to have a library card to get the content. I think that’s important in this current environment,” Merkley said.

Without in-person classes, a lot of the traditional teaching methods won’t be available. OERs can provide students and instructors with the flexibility to manage challenges posed by virtual learning, Merkley noted.

“It’s not just books. What about online simulation? What does a lab look like for the fall? OERs provide a whole range of open educational resources: free simulation labs, lab manuals, all kinds of things,” said Merkley.

“Open Education Alberta is an umbrella platform for individual institutional programs. At the U of A we have our own OER services, but we are plugging into Open Education Alberta for the common place to share and work together,” Brailey added.

Platform for reading and publishing

Open Education Alberta uses the Pressbooks platform, a simple ebook publishing tool that allows users to also input interactive components, like images and videos, and different types of quizzes for all learning styles, while providing a nice platform for reading, said Brailey.

U of A Libraries hosts the platform and takes care of the infrastructure for all partner institutions. Being able to share that infrastructure is a major benefit to institutions across Alberta, not all of whom would be able to put up their own publishing framework due to limited resources, said Merkley.

“There’s the homegrown support the U of A is giving, and then that which they’re giving to the larger community by providing the platform for Open Education Alberta. By hosting and taking care of the infrastructure and tech issues, they’ve done a wonderful service for their colleagues in the province,” said Merkley.

The Open Education Alberta Project has been in the works for two years. Along with the U of A and Mount Royal University, representatives from MacEwan University, the University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology all contributed to its development.

“Other provinces like B.C. and Ontario have large, provincially funded initiatives for this work: BC Campus and eCampus Ontario. But in Alberta there's not really any central point for people. This creates a central hub for people to get resources to do this work,” said Brailey.

For instructors who want to explore adapting or creating textbooks with Open Education Alberta, Brailey said the library is there to support them.

“A lot of faculty are already looking at OERs as potential for their course without even really knowing that’s what they’re doing, because they’re looking for things that are available in a different way,” said Brailey.

“If you’re interested in pursuing OERs, then we'll champion you and help you use the resources to do what you want to do.”