OER revolution in higher ed

Free and inexpensive OER expand access, reduce stress for college students

Open educational resources have grown over the last few years from one-off oddities in single courses to the basis of entire degree programs. Cutting out textbook costs for students tops the list of reasons administrators encourage faculty to develop and adopt these free—or very inexpensive—resources, also known as OER.

Other enticements include immediate access for students who sometimes wait or refuse to buy course materials, and instructors’ ability to customize and update OER, which range from digital textbooks to interactive tutorials to quizzes to YouTube videos.

“All of the factors that we use to measure student success have surpassed our expectations,” says Tidewater Community College President Edna Baehre-Kolovani of the impact OER has had at her institution. “The other thing we had not anticipated is that faculty feel more engaged and more energized.”

OER hasn’t reached disruption level—they don’t yet threaten to make the big publishers’ textbooks obsolete. And while curating these resources can also cost money and time, some institutions use them to expand access to lower-income students, while developers continue to add features such as analytics and personalized learning components.

“We’re seeing an increase in the quality of these materials,” says MJ Bishop, director of the University System of Maryland’s William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation. “We all talk about increasing the affordability of higher education. Here’s a place where we can have a direct impact—and it’s accountable and it’s auditable.”

Open equals access

The 1,200 students at Wiley College, an open-access HBCU in East Texas, use only open, online resources in their classes. The school’s transformation began four years ago when administrators realized how many students were not buying textbooks, says Kim Long, the associate provost for administration and extended education.

Now, Wiley no longer has a campus store. And the students, 90 percent of whom are on financial aid, save about $2,500 a year on course materials, she adds.

“It’s a huge shift in teaching and learning,” Long says. “For faculty, it does require more work, but it gives them the freedom to match specific materials with learning objectives, rather than asking students to buy an entire textbook that they’re going to only use a portion of.”

Wiley, like many other small and large institutions, purchases OER courses and other services from Lumen Learning. The college’s library also curates free materials for faculty use. Wiley has a number of computer labs to ensure student access.

Excelsior College, an Albany, New York-based institution offering online degrees to adult learners, has eliminated textbooks from 80 of its courses. That now saves students in just its business and technology programs about $570,000 annually, says Kimberly Barss, a lead instructional designer at the college’s Center for Online Education, Learning and Academic Services.

As the use of open educational resources continues to expand, the college’s designers have had to find or create materials for more specialized courses, such as electrical engineering and nuclear technology. Excelsior uses Merlot, an online repository of open, peer-reviewed resources. The website also has online communities where developers and adopters can share best practices and challenges.

“Our mission is to serve historically underrepresented students who are working and can’t always buy the book,” Barss says. “We try to provide everything they need to focus on learning instead of on money.”

Like a free puppy

The University System of Maryland has elevated OER to a statewide initiative at its 12 institutions. The Maryland Open Source Textbook initiative, or MOST, has guided faculty through more than 50 adoptions, saving 3,000 students nearly $1 million dollars in textbook costs, says Bishop.

Among other initiatives, the center helps faculty locate and assemble OER with the goal of keeping students’ materials costs under $40 per class. Campuses sometimes charge students who request printed versions.

Faculty who participate get a $500 stipend, and must collect data on the performance of students using open educational resources. The center also helps faculty make the resources accessible to students with disabilities, such as by transcribing videos.

Right now, the program is funded by the Kirwan Center but Bishop says she wants to make the initiative more self-sustainable (by recouping a portion of the printing fees, for instance) so she can develop a systemwide repository, among other enhancements. She also hopes to win state funding for the open-source textbook program.

“OER is like a free puppy,” Bishop says. “There are still costs of maintaining them and keeping them current.”

Bishop also works with the university system’s student council, with representatives from each state institution, to promote OER. Discussions involve the benefits of the resources with other students, and the messages filter up to professors. “When faculty realize it’s a real hardship for students, it’s a pretty easy sell,” Bishop says.

“Faculty also talk about the fact that it takes more time to prep a course with OER,” she adds. “But they find it to be a rewarding process in that they’re able to design a course the way they want it, instead of designing around a textbook.”

UMass Amherst faculty developing OER courses can win grants of up to $2,500 from the university’s W.E.B. Du Bois Library, says Marilyn Billings, scholarly communication and special initiatives librarian.

Librarians will also help faculty find resources from sites such as the OER Commons open-textbook library and the Merlot repository. “Most people we’ve given money to don’t want to use something out of the box—they want to compile a bunch of different things,” she says. “They grab some things from the library, go to websites and YouTube, find some podcasts, and use an open textbook as a reference.”

UMass faculty may also create their own open educational resources. One instructor wrote one of the first open geographic information system manuals, while another wrote a popular textbook on gender and sexual studies.

More than 60 faculty have used open educational resources in about 1,000 courses, saving 7,600 UMass Amherst students a combined $1.3 million since 2011, Billings says. “If a faculty member uses an OER resource that can be accessed for free, students have all that content and can be actively engaged in the classroom from day one.”

‘Champing at the bit’

Tidewater Community College in 2013 launched the nation’s first degree to rely solely on OER. More than 2,000 students have enrolled in the Associate of Science in business program’s 21 courses—which reside in the learning management system, so the resources students use most can be identified, says Daniel DeMarte, vice president for academic affairs/chief academic officer.

DeMarte and his team work with instructors to redesign their courses around OER to focus on only the concepts students need to learn. Faculty report feeling more current in their fields after performing this research and vetting the quality of the resources, adds President Kolovani. “Many of them are champing at the bit to get their hands on other OER courses.”

Tidewater now has a training program wherein faculty learn to create open educational resources, including how to avoid copyright violations. The school is developing OER degrees in criminal justice, general studies and social sciences.

“The notion that there will no longer be textbooks is implausible,” says Kolovani. “But the reasons OER is growing are student demand and faculty interest.”


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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