Scaling Up OER

New initiatives at university systems show the maturation of efforts to increase the use of open educational resources.

June 22, 2016

The effort to replace textbooks with open educational resources (OER) is gaining momentum as colleges move past pilots to expand the use of free or inexpensive course materials across states and systems.

In states such as New Hampshire and New York, university systems are undertaking new initiatives that build on years of lessons learned about using OER in the classroom. At the same time, organizations such as Achieving the Dream are investing millions of dollars to help community colleges in 13 different states build OER-based degree programs.

Those initiatives join others in progress in states such as Arizona, for example, where Maricopa Community College has used OER to save students more than $5 million in textbook costs, and Virginia, which is expanding Tidewater Community College’s idea of a zero-textbook-cost degree program to 15 other institutions.

While OER advocates aren’t yet prepared to say these initiatives represent a new phase for the proliferation of free or low-cost course materials, they acknowledged that the focus appears to be shifting away from individual courses and toward centralized efforts aimed at helping faculty members create alternatives to commercial textbooks or to think about opening up their teaching and research.

“It’s institutions thinking more broadly about what ‘open’ means and how open connects to a variety of different areas,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, known as SPARC. “We’ve seen for the last decade institutions working to open up access to scholarly research. As that has gained momentum and OER has gained momentum, there’s been a convergence of openness in all these areas.”

The State University of New York System has since 2012 operated its own OER publisher, known as Open SUNY Textbooks. The publishing initiative, which is based at SUNY Geneseo, has produced 17 titles, including textbooks on college-level writing and end-of-life nursing care, as well as more specialized titles.

Open SUNY Textbooks earlier this month announced that it would expand beyond publishing with the launch of SUNY OER Services. Structured as a membership organization, the initiative will offer professional development for faculty members, instructional designers and librarians, a publishing platform, and a support network for participants at different campuses to connect with one another.

“In order for this to scale effectively, faculty have to be involved -- it has to be coming from them,” Katherine Pitcher, Geneseo’s interim library director, said in an interview. “The drive for us is to get the pieces in place so the faculty can do it. It’s their courses. It’s their content. … We’re just providing the network and the platform and the services to get them started.”

Pitcher said that SUNY OER Services was created in response to some of the challenges Open SUNY Textbooks has encountered -- particularly the frustration faculty members sometimes feel when searching for open content to include in their courses.

Awareness and discovery continue to be major issues facing the growth of OER. While faculty members who are aware of OER are generally enthusiastic about the quality and ease of use of such course materials, even they admit to sometimes struggling to find the content they are looking for. Additionally, many faculty members know little to nothing about OER.

“We want to make sure we develop services that address that,” Pitcher said. “We need to develop faculty champions who can go out and advocate for faculty.”

Other university systems are including OER in a broader push to reshape how faculty members teach and conduct research. The University System of New Hampshire this month kicked off a yearlong open education initiative that, in addition to OER, encompasses collaboration between instructors and students and open-access publishing.

Together, the three components of the initiative make up “what it means to be a faculty member at a public institution,” said Scott Robison, co-director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Plymouth State University. The initiative, he added, will challenge faculty members to rethink “the way you teach and how you share your research with the public.”

“What we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic shift in the way higher education is progressing,” Robison said in an interview. “In an age of information where anybody can Google anything and get the right answer, we’re seeing the shift from the content to the process.”

The four-campus system three weeks ago hosted its annual Academic Technology Institute, where participating faculty members workshopped their plans to teach using OER, redesign courses and pursue new scholarly publishing outlets. The projects vary in scope, Robison said; one faculty member, for example, plans to encourage students to share their course work publicly, while another will rebuild a course from the ground up with input from students.

The system selected 10 projects from each campus -- 15 from the University of New Hampshire. Throughout the next academic year, the system will assess how students feel about open education -- including their experiences with OER -- and decide how best to expand the initiative. SUNY will look at similar measures, using a framework already in use by Open SUNY Textbooks.

Like SUNY, the New Hampshire system’s initiative builds on previous experiments with OER. Last year, faculty at UNH participated in an OER pilot, saving students about $148,000 in the process.

“Over the past several years we’ve been building on what we’ve done and expanding it,” Robison said. He said he’d like to see the open education initiative expanded beyond its one-year duration, perhaps by inviting more faculty members or by eventually establishing a systemwide OER center. “Whatever it is, we’ll at least continue what we’re doing.”

Both SUNY and USNH used system funding to provide money for their initiatives. SUNY OER Services received funding to hire an administrator, while USNH nearly tripled the $100,000 budget of its Academic Technology Institute to support participating faculty members’ projects.

Some of that funding will find its way to faculty members in the form of incentives. Faculty members in the New Hampshire system receive a $2,000 stipend for participating, and some additional funding has been set aside in case they need to hire outside help, such as a designer, Robison said.

Pitcher agreed that there need to be incentives in place for faculty members in order for OER to take root on the campuses in the SUNY system. She said the most powerful incentive could be to change tenure and promotion requirements to reward faculty members who participate in open education initiatives. For others, she said, the “intrinsic motivation” of creating their own textbooks may be enough.

“Partly what we’re saying is this is the time for faculty to take back their content and license it the way they want,” Pitcher said. “That’s what the academy’s about -- sharing knowledge.”


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