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NEW ORLEANS -- Major new initiatives on open educational resources are announced one after the other these days. Many experts and even many publishers believe that the era of free online educational materials is here.

The annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges here featured numerous sessions on the topic. One focused on how challenging it can be to translate the enthusiasm for OER in theory into on-the-ground results, with professors shifting from expensive textbooks to low-cost or no-cost online educational materials.

Two librarians and a faculty member from the Community Colleges of Spokane discussed with enthusiasm why they saw OER as crucial to helping students. But they also stressed that the shift is not easy -- and this is particularly the case if a college is wooing faculty members and not ordering them around.

That's very much the attitude at Spokane. “We don’t tell professors what to do," said Mary Ann Lund Goodwin, executive director of library services for the college district. "They work on their own and we support their work."

In a few years, the colleges have gone from two faculty members using OER to 32, from a handful of sections to 78 -- still a minority of courses, but now enough that officials believe they are seeing a positive benefit, and setting the stage for other professors to sign on.

Goodwin started off by talking about she and others see OER as so important. To her, it's about student success. The college, like many others, reports that more students than in the past appeared to be skipping textbooks, even required textbooks, and raising concerns about all costs of attendance. OER, she said, should mean that everyone has the educational materials, and costs are limited.

Costs of new textbooks varies of course, but the colleges have a popular biology course where the traditional materials cost $178. For many community college students, that's real money.

Roshan Khattry, an economics instructor, said he didn't have any problems with the traditional textbook he had been assigning (picked by his entire department, so not something he personally selected) except for its cost, $200.

"It was a good book, well written," he said. "But I had this nagging question: It’s good, but is it worth $200?”

Educating the Educators

The presentation here stressed the need to educate professors on what constitutes OER and where to find high-quality materials.

Heather Morgan, a librarian, illustrated the need to define terms by handing out red and green index cards to the attendees and then asking attendees to evaluate whether a series of resources were in fact OER by raising green cards when they thought something was OER and red for the opposite.

She started with an article from an online database -- which in this case was not OER. It's important for professors to realize that materials that seem free because the library has paid for them aren't in fact free -- and drive up institutional costs. She then distinguished between TED Talks (free but not something that an instructor can revise) and OpenStax resources (textbooks provided through a Rice University program and truly open, Morgan explained, because professors can use parts, change parts and do just about anything that makes sense to them).

The education is important, she said, because many professors fear that OER will mean a loss of quality and they may not always know what OER is. "It sounds to many like Wikipedia," she said, a resource on which professors have strong and conflicting views. But people need to see peer reviewed OER, with solid quality control in place, to get comfortable with it.

Much of that OER education is provided by librarians, both through professional development programs and one-on-one coaching of faculty members who want to adopt OER. "Librarians are marketers," she said, so it's natural to be telling faculty members about new resources.

The Community Colleges of Spokane have created various stipends for professors to encourage them to pursue OER. One of the stipends is a faculty member/librarian collaboration grant, in which professors receive not only funds but assurances of extra time from a librarian to work with them. Morgan also stressed the role of instructional designers, who frequently provide either quick answers or longer term assistance to professors.

All three speakers here stressed that faculty members -- especially at the beginning -- need to be rewarded with money and/or course release time. Khattry, the instructor, joked (in part) that when he heard about a stipend that was available, "as an economist, I decided to apply."

Time Needed to Replace Materials 

Creating OER material for a course takes real time, with some Spokane faculty members reporting that it took them more than 40 hours to completely replace paid course materials. While many others reported it taking far less time, the commitment is real.

Depending on the grants obtained by the colleges, stipends for converting a course were as high (in just a few cases) as $15,000 and more typically were about $1,200. Those who receive stipends must agree to share their materials with colleagues, so it becomes easier over time for professors to embrace OER without doing as much work as the pioneers do. All three speakers said that instructors feel pressed for time, and that colleges need to show they understand that before asking them to embrace a shift away from textbooks.

Khattry said that while the workload for professors was greatest at the point of converting a course to OER, there was plenty of work after that as well. "There were typos. There were parts of the [OER] textbook that didn't work as well as they should have," he said. So that was more work for him and colleagues to fix.

Colleges that want to support OER need to have "the right culture," he said, such that glitches as OER is rolled out are not only tolerated (while being fixed), but considered part of the process.

Khattry also stressed that it was important to remember the failings of traditional textbook selection, especially at the many institutions where this is done by committee.

He noted that OER allows faculty members to update all or part of their materials. In the old system for his department, "we had the same traditional textbook forever" because "economists never agree" so there wasn't really an attempt to consider alternatives. So people need to remember that traditional textbooks and their use are far from perfect, he said.

Khattry also is still paying a lot of attention to student learning with OER. He tracked 130 students using the OER materials he created and another 130 using the traditional textbook. The OER students earned slightly higher (though not statistically significant) grades.

Letting Students Know Their OER Options

Given that one of the motivations for promoting OER was to help students save money, one of the latest changes at the Community Colleges of Spokane has been to add notations to the course catalog indicating which courses or sections use OER for some or all materials, such that they can be called "low cost" or "no cost" materials.

Spokane students appear to be voting with their feet. In the winter 2017 quarter, courses using OER were filled 74 percent to capacity. Other courses were filled at 61 percent capacity.

In an era when colleges pay attention to enrollments in deciding which programs to support, that trend "could be another motivator" for faculty members to try OER, Goodwin said.

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