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An Arizona program will save students more than $10 million – double the initiative’s target – in textbook and material costs when the five-year project wraps up next year.

Launched in spring 2013, Maricopa County Community College District’s Maricopa Millions project is promoting the use of low-cost (less than $40) or no-cost options for course materials across the district’s 11 institutions through grants, outreach to faculty and students, collaboration between faculty members and instructor training.

Maricopa Millions is well past its initial savings goal. With about nine months left until the spring 2018 deadline, the program has saved more than $9 million for MCCCD students, said Lisa Young, faculty director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Scottsdale Community College and one of the chairs of the project’s steering committee. 

“When you tell students on day one of class that they don’t have to buy anything for the course and that everything will be available for free, they know that you as an instructor are very interested in helping them to be successful,” said James Sousa, a math professor at Phoenix College who is using open resources.

More Than 20 Courses

The 11 colleges that make up the Maricopa Millions project are:

Chandler-Gilbert Community College

Estrella Mountain Community College

GateWay Community College

Glendale Community College

Maricopa Corporate College

Mesa Community College

Paradise Valley Community College

Phoenix College

Rio Salado College

Scottsdale Community College

South Mountain Community College

As of now, the initiative has supported the development of 21 OER-based courses across disciplines, which have been adopted by faculty at many of the participating institutions. For example, George Gregg, a full-time faculty member in the chemistry department at Glendale Community College, received a grant to develop and implement open resources for three general chemistry courses. Working with two other chemistry professors, he selected an OpenStax textbook and created OER lesson notes, a PowerPoint-based lecture and online homework.

The open chemistry materials were put to use last year by nearly 40 full-time and adjunct instructors at Glendale and are now being adopted by other MCCCD institutions, Gregg said. He estimates that students save a total of about $75 per chemistry course after factoring in rebates for selling texbooks at the end of the semester.

In addition to saving students money, Gregg said OER materials save time for instructors, because they don’t have to vet new textbooks and update their materials to correspond to them every few years. “Now across the board with OER materials, we no longer are chained to that traditional publishing model that requires that kind of churn every few years,” he said.

Although the amount of grant money his project received was small -- about $7,800 total for the three people on the team -- it was the catalyst that he and his colleagues needed to move to OER, Gregg said. “Being offered a small stipend to do this work helps to overcome what we call the ‘activation barrier’ in chemistry,” he said. “Honestly this is something we’ve all wanted to do for a long time and it really just helped us get started.”

The district set aside $160,000 for grants and other Maricopa Million expenses; so far, it's spent $115,000, Young said.

This fall, Gregg and other instructors will begin implementing training workshops for faculty members from across the district to learn more about the diverse materials that have been developed as part of the Maricopa Millions project and how they can be remixed for use by other professors.

This type of collaboration is critical to the success of OER adoption, said Sousa, a steering committee member whose 5,000 online tutorials have 49 million YouTube views.

“In the past a lot of times each campus and each department was working on OER in isolation, so now it’s nice to know someone at another school is developing a course of interest to me,” he said. “By working together it allows more people to see what’s out there and if someone’s already done the legwork on something you can just revise it for your needs.”

The switch to free OER materials has a big impact at community colleges, educators point out, where many students are on tight budgets and courses can cost less than $90 per credit hour. In fact, at Scottsdale Community College, textbook expenses make up about one-third of the cost of an associate degree. Young said that preliminary data focused on OER-based education found that students take more credits per semester when they have free course materials. Surveys also show that students—and faculty--are more satisfied with OER materials.

Not Without Challenges

As with any new project, there were snags and confusion in the rollout of some of the colleges’ initiatives. For instance, the Glendale chemistry team considered launching its OER materials with a small pilot consisting of one course section, but decided against it because the instructors didn’t want to withhold the materials from some students. This meant that bugs and other technical glitches were not weeded out ahead of full implementation.

“About every week we found coding errors or typos in the online homework and that led to frustration for faculty and students,” said Gregg. “But through that process we’ve been able to tighten it up, and the spring semester went very smoothly.”

In addition, administrators knew that students were mining the course schedule for classes that use OER materials, so they created a highly visible search filter that allowed learners to easily see which courses had no-cost and low-cost materials. This turned out to be somewhat controversial with some instructors who don’t use OER materials; they told the project team they felt like the prominently placed filter might deter students from taking their classes. “It was a touchy topic,” said Sousa.

Instead, the project team reworked the schedule to embed the data so that it wasn’t as visible, said Donna Slaughter, division chair of mathematics at Scottsdale Community College. “We realized that this was something we needed to be sensitive to,” she said. “We don’t want to alienate the disciplines and faculty that are not able to use open resources.”

In addition, adoption by the colleges and individual instructors has been uneven, Young said. “Some are lurking and waiting to see what happens and that’s OK,” she said. “Every college has different priorities and initiatives, but we will continue to keep them aware of what’s going on.”

Besides these small roadblocks, one of the biggest challenges to widespread OER adoption in the district will occur in the years ahead, said Slaughter, who worries about how open materials will continue to be made available once grants and special programs like Maricopa Millions run out.

“The future challenge of OER is a question of sustainability,” said Slaughter. “Nothing is free, so if costs are not being passed on to students, then those actual costs for publishing those open materials have to live somewhere.”


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