• 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.


OER, Vertical and Horizontal

A different approach might yield more progress.


May 23, 2017

Why is there funding for the vertical development of OER, but not for horizontal?

OER refers to Open Educational Resources, which are free alternatives to commercial instructional materials (such as textbooks). They’re usually electronic, though it’s commonplace to have printed copies available at nominal cost. As regular readers know, I’m a fan of OER. They remove the obstacle of textbook cost, thereby allowing professors to insist that every student have the course materials from the first day of class.  

They aren’t free to develop, of course. That’s especially true in disciplines like math, where the textbook also needs to come with homework assignments, quizzes, and the like. Instructors need time to wade through the thickets of material to find (or build on, or help develop) the best stuff for what they’re teaching. Over the long term, it can pay off in vastly improved student success, but there is a short-term cost. It’s the sort of thing for which grants are ideal: smallish, non-recurring upfront cost, followed by long-term benefit.  It’s a textbook case, no pun intended, of when the concept of “seed money” actually makes sense.

But the OER grants out there tend to reward “vertical” development, rather than horizontal. And that’s not necessarily the best way to go.

By vertical, I’m referring to an entire degree path. Tidewater Community College’s “z-degree” in business administration is the exemplar. Every class that students take in the program uses all OER, including the Gen Ed classes. That means they got folks from English, math, the social sciences, and the rest to sign on.  

I admire what they’ve been able to do, but in the short run, it’s not practical for many places. If I have to get every department across the Gen Ed field to sign up, it could take years. And in the meantime, students would continue either paying money they don’t have, or simply not buying books and having their performance suffer.  

Horizontal development focuses instead on some high-enrollment classes first, leaving the specialized stuff for later. Instead of picking one degree program (or a few), you pick the high-enrollment courses in which you have willing faculty, and go from there.  

Horizontal development offers some real advantages. It’s politically easier, because it’s voluntary. But it also reaches more students sooner. If you knock out, say, five of the top ten enrolled gen ed classes, chances are good that the vast majority of the students at the college will get an OER class, if not several. Students talk to each other, and to faculty; over time, some who’ve had a few OER classes might ask their other professors why they aren’t using it. It’s one thing to reject an idea from a vice president, but it’s much harder to reject it from your own students. Assuming critical mass upfront, a viral transmission model can take effect. That has the advantage of long-term sustainability.

In my perfect world, the folks who do grants for OER would recognize both models, and support both. I’ve got thousands of students paying three figures per textbook (or not buying them at all) when they could be going with OER. Yes, it’s sometimes possible to use some internal money, but community college budgets tend to be tight. This is exactly the sort of thing for which grants are ideally suited.

So, a hint to the folks doing grants. Vertical development is great, and I’m all for it, when it’s possible. But don’t leave out horizontal development. We could make a real difference for an amazing number of students quickly, just by that one change.

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Matt Reed

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