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This article was updated on Tuesday afternoon and evening with comments from a Department of Education spokesperson and additional details on the winning projects.

Last year, when Congress authorized a second round of $5 million in federal funding for programs that support open educational resources, senators included explicit instructions to the Department of Education, which administers the grant program:

  1. Conduct a new competitive process for grant applications in 2019.
  2. Disperse funds among at least 20 proposals, rather than devoting $5 million to one program, as happened last fall.

But the department appears to have gone in a different direction. Earlier this year, it quietly awarded $2.5 million to each of two applicants from last year’s submission pile. This year’s winning programs are based at Chippewa Valley Technical College and Arizona State University, according to representatives of both institutions.

A spokesperson for the department confirmed to "Inside Digital Learning" Tuesday that the two winning proposals were in second and third place in last fall's grant competition.

"It would have been wasteful and unfair to the applicants who spent so much time and effort preparing such highly ranked proposals simply to ignore their good work and ask them to start over," Liz Hill, a department spokesperson, wrote in an email. Hill also cited institutions' investment of resources in grant applications, as well as peer reviewers' investment of time sorting the applications, as key factors in the decision.

The department’s new approach departs significantly from senators’ priorities, laid out in supplementary “report language” tied to the fiscal year 2019 budget bill.

Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary of education, hinted at the department's rationale in a letter last month to Senators Richard Durbin and Patty Murray, Democrats from Illinois and Washington, respectively, who have spearheaded federal support for OER. A new competition, rather than simply rewarding high-quality proposals from the previous round, might have required additional federal rule making, according to Auer Jones.

Hill said Tuesday that the two award recipients, both of which involve consortia of institutions, are "likely to yield the best results and to increase the likelihood that products developed with grant funding will continue to be revised, updated and made available even after the funded period ends."

Representatives of Congress, thus far, aren't convinced. Durbin and Murray on Monday sent another letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressing “extreme disappointment” at the department’s approach to the OER grant funding.

They called the department’s decision to fund two projects from last year’s competition “a flagrant violation” of their directives. They alleged that the department “intentionally ignored Congress” and neglected transparency. And they requested that the department clarify its rationale and turn over unfunded applications and communications about the grant program to Congress in the next month and a half.

“Apparently, despite what we have frequently heard from you about your belief in the limited federal role in education, in this case you believe your staff should, without consultation or transparency, determine the rules and impact for a program that has never been a part of any of your budget requests,” Durbin and Murray wrote.

The grants aim to support institutions in building capacity to offer open-source course materials as an alternative to expensive, proprietary textbooks from for-profit publishers. Proponents of OER cheered Congress’s requirements and eagerly anticipated another opportunity to compete, especially after the first process left some potential applicants scrambling to submit proposals within a tight 30 days for one of only three available grants.

For supporters of OER, the opportunity to apply for federal grant funding represents an encouraging sign that their preferred course materials are gaining favor among observers of higher education. Representatives of LibreTexts, the University of California, Davis-led program that earned last year’s $5 million federal OER grant, have expressed enthusiasm for the opportunities.

But the grant program has been repeatedly marred by process concerns, including the lack of a public comment period, vague guidelines for crafting an appealing proposal and now the reversal of a planned competition.

Federal OER Grant Timeline

March 2018: Congress approves $5 million federal OER grant pilot program.

May 2018: Education Department reveals priorities for grant consideration.

July 2018: Education Department issues call for proposals for up to three grants.

September 2018: Congress approves second $5 million grant for fiscal year 2019.

October 2018: LibreTexts at UC Davis receives entire $5 million 2018 grant.

January 2019: Education Department reveals plans to reward runner-up projects from first competition.

February 2019: $2.5 million grants offered to Arizona State and Chippewa Valley projects.

Both lead institutions receiving this year’s grant funding are members of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition, a leading OER advocacy organization. Nicole Allen, director of open education for SPARC, said she's "disappointed" that the department didn't follow Congress's instructions, but that she approves of both winning projects.

"These are both led by institutions with strong track records with leading OER projects that save money for students," Allen said. "It’s exciting for them to receive additional funding to expand on that impact."

This Year's Grant Recipients

The project out of Arizona State University includes three partner community college districts: Maricopa in Arizona, Ivy Tech in Indiana and Miami Dade in Florida. It's also a partnership with the technology company Smart Sparrow, which will support the mission of using adaptive learning principles to create OER for work-force preparation degree programs, according to Ariel Anbar, the project lead and a science professor at Arizona State.

Applicants asked last year for $3.3 million and are currently in the process of reconfiguring their plans for the $2.5 million allocation, Anbar said. The department notified them last week of the award.

"We're thrilled to be able to work with these other community colleges to advance our mission," Anbar said. "We feel this obligation to the community, especially under the circumstances, to get this right."

The Arizona State project was born out of two existing efforts there. InSpark, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and established by the institution alongside Smart Sparrow, offers “next-generation courses” in STEM topics to a nationwide network of community colleges. Meanwhile, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration-funded project called Infiniscope offers freely available course modules to middle and high school students.

The call for grant proposals last fall struck Anbar as an opportunity to advance the institution’s commitment to open learning while serving two-year college districts in the InSpark network.

“You could look at the Infiniscope project and the learning experiences we’re putting out there, as a type of OER,” Anbar said. “They’re trying to push the boundaries of what is done in freely available stuff.”

The grant will fund development at Arizona State of active learning OER resources as well as analyses by two-year college faculty members of work-force pathway needs in the three partner districts. Eventually, Anbar hopes the project will result in an online repository of OER content.

Chippewa Valley Technical College, meanwhile, will be the lead institution for its four-year OER project, with help from nearby Gateway, Northeast and Madison Area Technical Colleges, according to Amy Olson, Chippewa Valley's associate dean of health.

Faculty members at the four institutions will create and implement open educational resources for nursing courses. The nursing field doesn’t yet have as much OER content as some general education and liberal arts disciplines, according to Olson. Plus, unlike some other disciplines at the college, Wisconsin’s system of 16 technical colleges shares its nursing curriculum, which will hasten the spread of OER content across the state, Olson said.

More than $2 million of the grant will go toward creating OER content, Olson said. The remaining $350,000 will be devoted to partnering with a third-party provider on four in-person virtual reality centers -- one at each of the project’s four lead institutions -- outfitted with nursing simulations.

By serving students at community and technical colleges and creating content involving work-force development, both projects check several boxes laid out by the department in its request for proposals for the previous round of grant funding.

Olson said she wasn't surprised not to receive the first round of grant funding, given stiff competition from larger institutions, but she was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago by the surprise notification.

"Ultimately this is going to be a great opportunity for our students not just here at CVTC but statewide," Olson said. "Any time you can offer innovative high-quality nursing education at a reduced cost, I think that’s a win-win."

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