By Henry Kronk April 12, 2018
Top Hat, a Canadian edtech startup, hosts open educational resources (OER) on their platform. Today, the company has made their OER Marketplace freely available for use by any instructor and their students.
When open educational resources (OER) began appearing in digital media, many treated them like the promise of the early internet. They were the stuff of libertarian educators’ daydreams. They promised to bring about a sea change in the K-12+ publishing industry and the dissemination of educational material in general. But dreams soon gave way to reality, and educators realized that incorporating OER into their curricula was easier said than done.
“We think the promise of OER has fallen down,” said Nina Bilimoria Angelo, VP of product and customer marketing at Top Hat. The Toronto-based company has created a platform to house, customize, and share OER and other educational resources. It has been used by over 2.8 million students to date.
“The promise was there’s a community that continues to build on open materials,” Angelo said. “But when those materials are trapped behind static PDFs, and then people are making changes to it on their own without a mechanism to share it back, that’s where things fall flat. We really wanted to create a system where things can be improved in real time, not over a 3 or 4 year cycle like with traditional publishers.”
“Discoverability is a challenge with OER,” Angelo said. “Quality can be perceived as uneven which is probably why OER adoption has stalled at the 5-10% level for instructors. There’s a lot of skepticism amongst higher educators. We’re trying to make sure all the high quality material is available in the Marketplace. Once it’s adopted, it’s really customizable. But then those customizations – this is the magic – those customizations can be shared back with the author and the team so that they can improve upon what they’ve created.”
“The way we like to think of ourselves is as an end-to-end teaching platform designed to help educators promote student success inside and outside the classroom. Our platform has evolved to address four key teaching challenges: 1) student engagement in the classroom (with Top Hat Classroom); 2) textbook affordability and customizability (with Top Hat Textbook); 3) student comprehension and gauging for mastery (with our Assignment product); 4) and the administration of tests in a secure environment (Test).”
“In the Top Hat Marketplace you can find over 20,000 course materials, ranging from textbooks all the way to individual question packs. 90% of the content is free. The rest is available at a fraction of traditional publishers’ costs. This allows us to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing students today, which is the affordability of higher education. With any of our products, you can either choose to adopt material from the marketplace to use with your students or you can create your own. We’ve externalized our offering tool which allows instructors to create bespoke material for their classes as well. The big selling point is that this is all in one application, one platform, which becomes a one stop shop for instructors at the higher education level.”
Top Hat has curated some of the open content on their platform, and they’ve also partnered with other OER-focused groups to share what they’ve created. For example, OpenStax.org has put together a few dozen textbooks for introductory university courses entirely comprised of OER. These, along with resources from others, are available on the platform.
All open content is viewable online. If it costs money, you can preview a few chapters before you buy. With many resources, such as tests and assignments, only educators can access them. This blocks students from being able to access answers that could help them bypass the learning process when it comes to end of semester assessments.
For educators who create material with the Top Hat platform, they are required to release it with a Creative Commons license. While they’ll receive the credit, others will be able to freely use and repurpose what they’ve created.
It’s true that, for many professors, saving their students money isn’t a priority. They’d rather focus on their research. When it comes to designing a course, picking a textbook off a shelf is much easier than really digging into OER.
“We think about professors on a spectrum,” Angelo said. “You’ve got one end of the spectrum who can’t find anything for their course. Maybe it’s a very niche subject or highly advanced. There’s no good textbook out there for them. They’ve had to cull things together from disparate places, and they’re really happy about what they’ve put together.”
“It’s a small but important part of the Marketplace. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the instructor who just wants to do research, etc. They can go to the Marketplace, adopt existing materials and use them straight out of the gate. The majority of instructors, we find, want to be able to adopt something off the shelf but then tweak it a bit, add in a couple notes or videos. We enable that too.”
“We think this is a really positive change to OER. Traditionally, you pay a subscription fee and get a static PDF at best. Our platform is much more interactive and it’s free.”