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Free and Low-Cost Learning Resources Fail To Gain Traction in Statewide Program

They're free. They're high-quality. So why aren't open educational resources catching on in the state of Washington, which launched and subsidized — with the help of the Gates Foundation — a statewide effort to provide free and reduced-cost learning materials to college students?

Thirty-four institutions in the Washington Community and Technical College system were selected to offer Open Course Library materials in 42 courses per campus, encompassing a total of 2,722 sections. OCL materials are managed by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The materials available to the campuses included both free and open educational resources and reduced-cost commercial materials.

A report that involved a survey of 25 of those campuses found that only 2.8 percent of the 2,722 course sections from those 25 campuses (75 sections) used OCL materials and that just 2.4 percent of students enrolled in the selected courses in those 25 campuses participated in the sections that were actually using those materials during the first phase of the program. That's 2,386 out of 98,130 eligible students. (Information about adoption rates at the remaining nine campuses is not available. It's also worth noting that not all of the campuses offered all of the courses that were part of the OCL.)

Further, only nine of the 25 campuses reported they had at least one course that was using OCL materials. Of those, only 21 percent were using "open educational resources that are free to students online,... while 79 percent of OCL class sections utilized commercial material that had an average cost of $25 for the materials."

The report was put together by OnCampus Research, which is part of the National Association of College Stores.

"I think the data underscores what college store course material specialists experience every day — to secure greater change whether it's adopting lower cost course materials, ensuring greater utilization of what is assigned (which would solve a huge part of the problem of perceived value) and ensuring earlier adoption submissions which is perhaps the greatest way to lower costs requires significant and sustained campus engagement from all corners of the institution," said Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the NACS. Hershman, who is currently out on leave, communicated with Campus Technology via e-mail. "College stores on many campuses have attempted to do this through promoting the establishment of inclusive course material advisory committees and annual reporting and securing strong admin and faculty senate support. I think the state system also recognizes this and has sought additional state funding to support more campus-based approaches."

He added that the low adoption rate was not unexpected and that it does not indicate a failure on the part of the OCL program.

"I don't think this data suggests the program is a failure. Quite the contrary: Students in the sections where OCL materials are being used have seen lower costs for those classes."

He said it was more surprising to find that only nine of the 25 eligible campuses had adopted OCL materials to any degree.

He cited a few potential factors for the low adoption rate based on open-ended questions from the survey:

"Some stores indicated students still prefer print and much of what was rolled out in OCL has been custom digital or digital collections. That could be impacting faculty adoptions," he said. "The other thing we have picked up on is the system so far has not done that much with working with the campus stores on this initiative and have primarily focused elsewhere [primarily libraries] and they may find the campus store staff experience invaluable if they do engage and support them. A more campus collaborative stakeholder approach may help move the goals of the program forward and also find more sustainable models that work for individual campuses and their unique needs and student populations."

Hershman added that in phase 2, data for which has not yet been compiled into a report, OER adoption was higher, particularly in language classes.

"For the first time since the launch of the program we have better data on the adoption rate of the identified materials in the statewide initiative where it's getting used and what is getting used. There was plenty of anecdotal information to suggest a relatively low adoption rate, but this data should help the state system better assess where they are now and where they may need to focus on," Hershman said.

Hershman said the raw adoption data from the survey will be released in order to address questions that have come up since the report's publication. Those data may be available as early as this week.

The complete findings are available at nacs.org.

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