Opening Up the National Academies Could Radically Expand OER Impact

The National Academies were incorporated by the government at various times — I think the Sciences (NAS) was incorporated by President Lincoln, and the other academies sometime after that. (I know, a deep history here).

They serve the public interest in a number of ways, but one of the more prominent is they gather experts to produce reports on various scientific and social issues. These reports used to sell to libraries, but now can be read on the web for free. In many ways the academies are the best representation of what this country could be — gathering experts to explain serious challenges and intriguing scientific and technological possibilities to the public.

The fascinating thing about these works is their accessibility to general audiences. These are most often written for policy makers, administrators, and  people in the field whose background may not be research. Here’s a bit from their report on microbial forensics, for example:


If you look at this carefully, you see it is written like a textbook for a niche area. This is because what the academies are doing is explaining research and disciplinary concerns to people outside the field, which is what textbooks do as well.

Why am I fascinated with this? Because I’m currently looking at how to resource a potential “Z-degree” for a Human Development program. And it is hard because there are not any open textbooks on niche subjects such as Child Maltreatment. In fact, there’s hardly enough open material out there to repurpose.

But when you go to the National Academies site, you find this:

child abuse.PNG

And the text in these books is wonderful. It’s clear, it’s full of examples, and it makes clear connections between research and pressing problems. And there it is, free and online.

It’s 90% of the way to a solution for resourcing a Human Development class on this topic. But unless I can go in there and cut and slice it and throw it into my class framework, it’s difficult to get that last 10% of the way. The 1993 text has great definitions of issues for example, but they need to be separated from some of the older research. The 2014 text is phenomenal, but could benefit from questions for reflection and self-tests of comprehension.

This is pressing partially because opening up these works could help serve these upper-level classes that are being left out of the OER revolution. Open up these reports to modification and redistribution via a Creative Commons license, and you could have a workable Child Maltreatment course text within a couple of weeks, which in turn is going to have a greater impact on public understanding of these issues than anything the academies are currently doing. And of course this holds with issues from genetic engineering to climate change to quantum mechanics. There are over 8,000 books and articles currently available on their website.

Why not do it? Why not open these works — already free to view — up to reuse and modification? I can see very little harm, and a huge potential benefit. And surely we could set this up so that both higher education and the National Academies benefit. I think Old Abe would have liked that, don’t you?

To check out the works available, go to the NAP website.

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