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Achieving the Dream

A study on early returns of an effort to expand the use of open educational resources at community colleges found that students at the participating institutions are saving, on average, $134 per course, and at least 76,000 students will enroll in courses using free materials during the three-year initiative.

"Our hope is to reduce the cost of education so [students] can speed up time to degree completion," said Michael Mills, vice president of e-learning, innovation and teaching excellence at Montgomery College in Maryland, which is participating in the initiative.

The study, Launching OER Degree Pathways, surveyed community colleges in Achieving the Dream​'s ​OER Degree Initiative, a $9.8-million effort launched in mid-2016 that's designed to help remove financial roadblocks that officials say can derail students’ progress as well as degree and certificate completion.

For the report, SRI International and rpk Group contacted more than 400 faculty members, and conducted 43 phone interviews with instructors, administrators and support service staff across a broad range of disciplines at 15 of the 38 participating community colleges in 13 states. 

The faculty members and staff who participated in the survey stated that cost savings, rather than improved outcomes, was the chief benefit of OER. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, which represents 200 institutions, said textbook and material costs for two-year college students can be as low as 20 percent and as high as 60 percent of the learners' total education costs.

At Montgomery College, 3,400 students in 200 zero-cost sections saved about $340,000 during the spring semester, Mills said, adding that 96 percent of the learners enrolled on the first day of classes were still enrolled at the end of the semester. The community college expects to offer 300 zero-cost sections this fall to about 4,000 students.

"Our faculty members see the value of saving students money," Mills said. "For many faculty, they've had enough of textbook publishers charging students $250 a book."

Besides cost savings, 84 percent of the instructors surveyed said that students in the courses utilizing OER had the same or a higher level of engagement with the materials as students in courses taught with traditional textbooks. Stout added: “OER not only has the promise of improving student engagement, but it also can spark more dynamic approaches to teaching.” 

While more than half of the instructors in the survey had no experience using OER, 83 percent had taught online and hybrid courses that made use of digital resources. Top reasons instructors gave for being involved in the OER initiative were personal interest (80 percent), encouragement from a department chair or an administrator (55 percent), a stipend (29 percent) and recommendations from colleagues (27 percent). 

"That was a little surprising that other factors were of higher motivation than the stipend," Stout said. 

As a result of these and other experiences, 71 percent of the instructors surveyed said they are very or somewhat likely to promote OER use to colleagues. "For things to move forward with OER, faculty have to be at the center," Stout said. 

Mills noted that Montgomery College instructors are using free OpenStax materials, which are peer reviewed, but that they would have challenged the quality of OER just a few years ago.

OER Adoption Challenges

The report identifies a number of key challenges for scaling OER. They include the need for:

  • Instructors to have adequate time to locate and vet OER materials, do course mapping, deal with technical issues and develop skills for using OER.
  • Creation of systems, policies and incentives to support OER use.
  • Identification of ongoing funding.

"A challenge is sustaining this beyond their grants," Stout said. "There is a cost to support the faculty to continue the adoption of OER ... but colleges are struggling with what costs will look like in the future."

Stout also said that some faculty members have expressed concern about the limited number of open resources available for language, literature and humanities courses. "There are some gaps," she noted.

The report concluded that OER challenges can be overcome by:

  • The investment of time and resources in training and supports.
  • Getting students to evangelize free resources.
  • Aligning instructional incentives, like performance evaluation criteria and compensation, with desired outcomes.
  • Communicating a broad, long-term vision.
  • Fostering collaboration among instructors to address time constraints.
  • Training and enlisting non-instructional staff.

Funding for the OER Degree Initiative and related research is being provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corp., the Shelter Hill Foundation and the Speedwell Foundation.


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