• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Getting There From Here

How to encourage a large-scale transition to OER.

October 20, 2015

As regular readers know, I’m not above using the blog to fish for helpful hints. (Readers under 40 can replace that with “helpful hacks” if it clarifies.) This is the latest effort at idea fishing.

I’m a fan of Open Educational Resources (OER). They’re free, usually electronic alternatives to commercial textbooks. They offer the rare win-win-win: students save money, so they win; students show up to class having “bought” the book, so faculty win; students are likelier to complete, so everyone wins. A few big publishers lose, but I’m okay with that. I can see a clear goal: get entire programs to adopt OER, like Tidewater Community College did in its Business program. We could save students thousands of dollars apiece, we could market the hell out of it, and we could level the playing field to some degree for low-income students. It’s a fine and worthy goal, if I do say so myself.

At Holyoke, I was able to direct some grant dollars to stipends for individual faculty to investigate, adopt, and report back on the success or failure of OER in their own classes. A fair number participated, and the feedback was generally positive. But a couple of years later, OER remained largely on the fringes. Some folks jumped in with both feet, and some more used it to reduce the overall reliance on paid books, but most continue(d) to use commercial texts. A smallish exploratory project led to positive, but still smallish, adoption.  

The culture of Brookdale, as of Holyoke, effectively forbids mandates, so adoption has to be voluntary. I can hope to convince, but I can’t command. I’m okay with that, too.

I’d love to see a viral transmission model, in which faculty who have good results with OER tell their colleagues, and momentum builds naturally. (“Nobody put off buying the book!” is a pretty enticing argument…) After a while, students might seek out OER sections to save money -- voting with their feet -- and thereby create enrollment pressure on those who still force purchases. Ideally, eventually the commercial publishers start producing better value for the money out of sheer market pressure, so even non-adopters win through a sort of coattail effect.

The part I’m struggling with is getting there from here.  

I’m happy to support some early explorers, but the resources don’t exist to stipend everybody. And I don’t want early stipends to have an unintended chilling effect on later participation, by inadvertently encouraging people to wait for payouts before moving forward. (At a previous college, an earlier wave of retirement incentives seemed to have taught people to wait for the next wave. The pipeline got pretty jammed while people waited for checks that weren’t coming.  The effect is real.)    

Here’s where I hope that my wise and worldly readers have seen something I haven’t. For those who’ve seen a successful large-scale transition, how did it happen? For those in the midst of it, what’s working?  Any hints/hacks you could share would be appreciated.



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