As enthusiasm for Open grows in British Columbia, those wondering why it has taken off so strongly here need look no further than BCcampus.
BCcampus is a Canadian government agency that works with post-secondary institutions to help adapt teaching and learning practices to best serve students. In 2012, it launched the BC Open Textbook Project and has since become a recognized world leader in open education. BCcampus embraced the concept that access to freely available content, information, and data is essential to students and instructors.
For its dedication to the Open agenda, collaborative practices, and willingness to share what works to make education more accessible, SPARC is honoring BCcampus with its January 2018 Innovator Award.
“BCampus and its leaders are shining stars in using open as an enabling strategy to achieve meaningful results,” says Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC. “They’ve built a set of tremendously useful open resources and have saved students and their families millions of dollars – truly making education more affordable for everyone.”
In October of 2012 at the annual OpenEd conference in Vancouver, the British Columbia Minister of Advanced Education announced a government grant to fund the development of open textbooks. “It came as a surprise to many in the room,” says SPARC’s Nicole Allen who was at the event. “Everybody cheered. It felt a little like history was happening right in front of us.”
Initially, BCcampus was mandated to form a collection of 40 textbooks in the 40 highest-enrolled subjects in the province. Between 2014 and 2016, it added another 20 titles in trades, technology and skills training. To date, BCcampus Open Education (recently renamed to reflect its broader work) has produced and curated 220 open textbooks and 13 guides and toolkits. This initiative has saved students in British Columbia an estimated $5.7 million since 2012. The agency maintains a voluntary tracking system to follow where the books are being used and posts a map of known adoptions on its website.
The work of BCcampus has gone beyond the development of open textbooks. “They’ve taken a holistic approach supporting open education at member institutions,” says Allen. “They are thinking of all steps in OER — creating content, supporting faculty, working with librarians and supporting open pedagogy.”
BCcampus Executive Director Mary Burgess says their work in Open has been effective because they have addressed various concerns and customized their messaging.
“As much as we focus on working with students, we’ve also done a lot of work on the academic side with peer reviews of the work so the quality question is ruled out as soon as they have a look at the book,” Burgess says. While the appeal of OER for students is the price, she knows to emphasize pedagogical freedom and control of resources to faculty. Talking to administrators, the pitch for Open highlights statistics showing students using open textbooks stay enrolled in courses longer.
BCcampus closely monitors data associated with their initiatives and is transparent with their own products. It has produced resources including the BC Open Textbook Adoption Guide, Faculty OER Tool Kit, and an Open Textbook Directory that are available free for download from their website. They created a page with frequently asked questions about OpenEd and respond to questions online through a Help Desk.
“They look at what other folks in the open community have done. They learn from that and then bring their own unique strengths to improve and share,” says Una Daly, director of the Community College Consortium for Open Education Resources, a national network of institutions. She admires how the BCcampus has developed an “amazing” repository and created useful guides such as the Open Textbook Accessibility Tool Kit to help make sure open resources are accessible to students with disabilities. “They do a great job communicating the excellent work they are doing and sharing it. They are really a role model for open collaboration.”
Amanda Coolidge, senior manager for Open Education at BCcampus, credits the agency’s innovation to the flexibility and creativity of the staff. “We have a great software team that has provided the technical infrastructure and Pressbooks, which paves the way for the open textbook system,” she says. There has also been a strong group of advocates ready to partner with BCcampus and provide support when asked, Coolidge adds.
“What I appreciate about working at BCcampus is that we are nimble,” says Lauri Aesoph, a 15-year employee of BCcampus who is now its manager of Open Education. “We are a very small team, but our skill sets complement each other. We also pay attention and listen to faculty and staff and try to respond with practical tools and resources they can use.”
As the interest in Open has expanded, the volume of inquiries forced BCcampus to come up with innovative ways to respond to users. Staff created a “Suggestion for the Collection” form to invite suggestions for new textbooks. They’ve also refined criteria for books that are accepted to the collection and created a form to report errors.
The agency, with its 26 employees overall, is mandated to work with 25 public institutions in the province and their advocacy is supported by passionate student leaders on campus, says Coolidge says. BCcampus has found success working with student government leaders who have come to realize expanding open textbooks can have a big impact on educational access and retention.
“Our ultimate goal is to increase access to higher education by lowering the cost,” says Burgess. “It can open up the world of education to a much greater population.”
BCcampus also runs a faculty fellows program where academics from diverse backgrounds and disciplines meet monthly to talk about their research and development of materials in Open. Once a faculty champion is nurtured on one campus, the hope is that the concept Open will spread.
Christina Hendricks, a professor who teaches philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was a 2014-15 Open Textbooks Faculty Fellow with BCcampus. She says the experience taught her a great deal about the nature and value of open textbooks and other OER, as well as how to promote their use with others.
“BCcampus has had a very large impact on my work as an open education practitioner and advocate,” says Hendricks, who also was an OER research fellow with the Open Education Group and developed a website for the Open Case Studies project at UBC. “BCcampus has been a valuable resource not only for providing many excellent open textbooks in their collection, but also for their help with creating and revising open textbooks.”
For those looking to push for an Open agenda, Burgess says there is no need to start from square one. “We really listened and built on the advice of others,” she says. “Our success came from what others have done.”
Former BC Student Leader Brady Yano says for years BCcampus has been the clear Canadian innovator when it comes to supporting open textbook adoption, adaptation, and education. “BCcampus’ energetic and inclusive approach to working in the open is a direct reflection of the leadership,” says Yano, a former SPARC Assistant Director of Open Education. “They’ve supported Canadian open advocates in getting started, including myself, and have truly been a catalyst for putting Open into action.”
Others look to BCcampus as a model. David Porter, executive director of BCcampus from 2003-2014, is now chief executive officer at the nonprofit eCampus Ontario, which has adopted the BcCampus library of open textbooks and rebranded it for Ontario.
“They are very willing to work and share knowledge with others,” says Porter of the BCcampus team. “They have a small ego. They are willing collaborators. That should not be discounted.”
Over the years, BCcampus was able to knit together pockets of Open in the province and encouraged communities within various disciplines to be the engineers of innovation that are sustaining the model, says Porter. “[The leadership] has kept their eye on the ball with a real focus on Open end to end,” says Porter. “They’ve improved their production and adoption model, supported research and published the results, they’ve built a community,” he says. “As a result, BCampus has established itself as the leader in Canada with open education. When people think of open ed in Canada, they think of BCcampus.”