Open to change? How higher ed can save millions, reach more students

A new report from Achieving The Dream shows the immense power of open educational resources, beyond just cost.
By: | April 21, 2022
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Cost savings and accessibility have been two of the signature drivers behind the adoption of open educational resources. Shinta Hernandez, Dean of the new Virtual Campus at two-year Montgomery College in Maryland, said her institution has helped students save $9 million in textbook costs over the past five years. For community college students, OERs can mean the difference between starting or stopping—or simply forgoing the idea of—postsecondary education altogether.

But in a two-year-long study done by Achieving the Dream and SRI International, researchers found that their implementation has done quite a bit more. Among 38 of the community colleges that ATD serves, the further embrace of OERs has helped boost student agency and engagement, delivered them more relevant course material and helped them collaborate more frequently with other students and instructors.

“The picture is encouraging,” said Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. “We’re seeing the kinds of teaching that is student-centered, that creates voice and choice for students and is inclusive, even involving students in the design of courses.”

That endorsement comes on the heels of its 64-page Teaching and Learning with Open Educational Resources report, which not only shows the power of OERs but how higher education leaders must take far more interest in giving them a whirl and putting some smart muscle and resources behind them.

“We see ensuring deeper implementation of these approaches as part of a larger goal to promote a culture of excellence in teaching,” Stout said. “We believe that introducing the new framework is a crucial step for institutions to address a collective blind spot in our student success efforts—a lack of an explicit focus on improving teaching and learning, and the required leadership and institutional investments to do so, as a primary lever for institutional transformation.”

The drive for five

Even for institutions that place an emphasis on OERs, faculty have struggled to nail down all five dimensions of open and culturally responsive education (CRE) practices, either because they fall back on traditional instruction methods or because of a lack of support. As much positive impact as lower costs can have on retention and completion, the same can be said for students about fulfilling those areas: agency and ownership, inclusive content, collaborative knowledge generation, critical consciousness and classroom culture.

“The study indicates that pedagogy that aligns with the five dimensions can be a powerful lever to help create more dynamic, student-centered, engaging classrooms that can help students gain the momentum they need to persist and reach their goals,” Stout said. “We’re seeing lots of focus on what research says matters to student success. Our committed and technology-oriented faculty, often left behind in this research, need support and professional learning opportunities to take their work in the classroom to a new level.”


More from UB: The 101 on OERs: 6 key principles for adoption


The study showed that students given opportunities through OERs tended to be far more motivated in their work and that faculty members were more open to giving students a voice rather than simply teaching from the text. Students were afforded more opportunities to work in teams, address current topics such as social justice, and be more inclusive in their choice of subject matter or relevant authors. Instructors also created more welcoming and safe spaces for students, both in-person and online.

“The use of OER in place of textbooks opened up space for some faculty members to control the pace and focus of their courses and for students to engage and lead,” said Rebecca Griffiths, senior principal researcher at SRI Education and one of the study’s authors. “One professor described how she was able to slow down the course because they didn’t feel the need to march through the publisher presentation slide and get through the textbook chapters. They had space to take a step back and think about what is most important for my students to learn and also to give students a chance to drive the conversation. Instructors generally benefitted from strong institutional support for adopting OER content.”

However, she said the adoption of “transformative instructional practices was less common.” Stout suggested that students should be allowed opportunities to learn through many OER courses, not just “what I call random one-off courses. Faculty are going at it on their own, really, without systematic support from their institutions, without professional development and support for their teachings. So there’s an opportunity here for us to think differently as a sector about how we invest in faculty professional development in using OER. Leadership matters to adoption and scale.”

So what’s holding administrators back from really ramping up the necessary support around OERs to meet the demands of students and faculty? One is that they haven’t embraced open educational practices because they don’t know enough about them, and the second is that there is some uncertainty about how widespread they will be used in the future. “I would say it isn’t resistance as much as maybe a lack of awareness across the sector, about the potential of OER to be a transformational lever for improving student success outcomes, especially at scale,” Stout said. “We’re just beginning to feel the traction. We’ve hit a plateau with student success work at many colleges, and if we don’t reach into the classroom, we won’t get to the goals that we want to achieve.”

Some institutions have fellowships for best practices, others have forged committees around course redesign and still others are using teaching and learning centers to enhance professional development. Understanding that it will take time is key, Hernandez said. “What I’ve learned is that it’s important to start small because you get a chance to revisit your pedagogy, to be a part of a community of practice,” she noted. “You brainstorm. You generate ideas. Starting small sometimes in one’s own classroom can be the key to a life-changing and transformational teaching and learning.”