Tom Caswell and the Open Course Library: Making Education Truly Accessible

Edited by Stacy Redd

Tom Caswell Can you tell us a little bit about what you've been presenting and what you do?

Tom Caswell: I'm the Open Education Program Manager for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. I work with 34 colleges in the state of Washington. We have altogether almost half a million students in our system. What I've been at the OCWC talking about is the efforts we've been making trying to get open education more widely adopted in our system and more widely recognized, as well as specific projects we're working on that we hope will also help with its adoption. The OCL is probably the biggest one of those. How did you develop this interest in open education?

TC: I started out as a high school teacher. I taught French and computer science for seven years out in Southern California. Then I decided to go back for my Doctorate at Utah State University. That's where I met up with David Wiley, who's one of the leaders in the open education movement. He's now at Brigham Young University and also leading the Open High School of Utah. Working with him really inspired me. I actually took a job working in the research center he started, which was the Center of Open and Sustainable Learning (COSL). That's really where I got my start.

From there I worked with several organizations. I started doing some consulting and worked for the Open Consortium. I did a little bit of work for Creative Commons and also the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona. I had some great opportunities. Really my passion is to try and help open education reach its full potential. The pilot that you're working on now is really ambitious - 81 open courses. When it's finished it will be really amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about the process that you've used in developing and testing those courses?

TC: We're actually roughly in the middle of this project. It's divided into two phases. The OCL is a project that's funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and matched by our State Legislature in Washington. The grant is to develop openly licensed courses for our 81 highest enrolling community and technical college courses. We've tackled the first 42.

We basically start out with a competitive grant process and then we have a selection committee that picks the faculty from our system that works on these courses. As part of that, they've agreed to adopt the course they create, so we know we have some adopters already. They're building the kind of course they'd use for themselves. Are the students able to access those first 42 courses now?

TC: Yeah, our 42 courses have been piloted this winter and spring term. They're not yet publically available. There were two quarters of development and then there was a quarter of pilot. The fourth quarter of these 42 courses was a revision phase. That's where we're at right now. The courses are being revised and every faculty member is working with an instructional designer and a librarian to use existing OERs (Open Education Resources) as much as possible. Can you talk a little more about the process of getting everyone onboard for this and moving forward to make sure it says open?

TC: First I want to say a big part of the vision for this comes from Cable Green. He's the Director of E-Learning on the Washington State Board. When he visualized the OCL project he wanted it to be something that would continue and that could be developed beyond just the state of Washington.

The OCL is designed with the students in our community and technical colleges particularly in mind. Therefore, we have an audience that's very defined. At the same time, by making it open, it allows those materials to be adapted in so many different ways. We're already seeing that happening. There are literally people emailing us and asking us when the courses are going to be done. We're really excited to share them.

Our goal has always been to make these available to everybody. However, at the same time we're also focusing on making these high-quality courses for our colleges. It's a lot like the Open Source software movement - you have programmers that develop software with a specific idea of what they need it for, but they openly license it, which lets lots of people take it and do other things with it. That's really what we're doing with our educational materials. You shared a figure in your presentation that students at community colleges often have to spend up to a quarter of their costs just on textbooks, and you talked about how you're working to help reduce that cost for students. Can you talk about that?

TC: One of the things that we can do with the OCL and open education in general is drive down the cost of attending a higher education institution. The textbooks at community colleges often cost the same as they do for universities. What that means is that for community college students, textbooks really account for a large percentage of the total cost for going to school. Students are spending $3,000 on tuition per year, and they're also spending about $1,000 on textbooks. Many times it's more, depending on which degree program they're in. You also talked about being passionate with regards to accessibility in these courses. Can you detail that for our readers?

TC: One of the things we're really trying to do with the OCL is to be intentional about our method of creating our open course materials. We've hired an accessibility specialist and all the materials that are being created are created with accessibility in mind. For example, we're adding captions to all the videos we use in our courses and making those transcripts available. We're of course adding alt tags so that screen readers can read all the course materials. If there are images, all of those images are required to be described using alt attributes.

The other big thing is for any text materials we're asking our entire faculty to use headings so that the screen readers can easily jump from chapter to chapter. Something people don't realize with screen readers is if you don't have properly described headings then there's no way to skip over things. You actually have to go through all the text to get to a certain section. By having the proper headings, they can skip from heading to heading.

That actually ends up saving quite a bit of money as well, because retrofitting anything after the fact means you have to go dig back into the content, and you have to figure out how to get back into it many times. When you're retrofitting, you're usually just adapting it for one person and then it never makes it into the actual course. So many times retrofitting happens over and over again. By adding accessibility features upfront, it's there for everyone and it really helps make it that much more useful to more people. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us today.

TC: You're welcome. And actually, a few of the courses are available for preview. You can see the first courses that are ready early. All 42 phase 1 courses will be ready in the fall. You can find out more about the Open Course Library at

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