Open Educational Resources

Affordable Learning at Scale With OER

Open educational resources free students and faculty from the tyranny of the textbook. Here's how to encourage large-scale adoption.

Gerry Hanley has a vision. He wants to plant a big thermometer on California State University Web sites to show how much money students are saving by not having to buy traditionally published textbooks or ancillary resources. His rough estimate: As of a few years ago, learners at the 23-campus, 460,200-student university system were spending $300 million a year on course materials — about $651 per student per school year. His goal is to cut that in half, and he believes the result will be higher graduation rates and better quality of education.

"If I could save 50 percent for students, that'd be great," said Hanley, Cal State's assistant vice chancellor for academic technology services and executive director of MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching). A visionary in the open educational resources universe, Hanley was there for the 1997 unveiling of MERLOT, when Cal State launched it as a community to collect, evaluate and publish OER teaching and learning materials.

3 Tips for OER Success

  • Provide as much training and information as possible for your faculty team up front before they start building their OER courses. Linda Williams, OER leader at Tidewater Community College, regrets not doing so. "I think it would have alleviated some trepidation."
  • Have your subject teams work with data from the LMS aggregated over the course of the semester to pinpoint modules where students have been most successful and where they're least successful, in order to target areas that need improvement. Then create a "master" class from which instructors can start.
  • Enlist your librarians to help faculty with copyright issues. "We found that that is helping to encourage faculty to branch out, even in small ways for OER," said Williams.

But his current vision is impeded by a big obstacle. Achieving that 50 percent savings for students will take systemwide adoption of open educational resources and other low-cost options — a major transformation.

Promoting Affordable Learning

Cal State has about 24,400 faculty members. Turning a ship with that size of crew is a major undertaking, so the system has introduced a methodical approach to drive adoption. Dozens — and in some cases hundreds — of faculty members at 20 of its institutions are immersed in Affordable Learning Solutions (ALS), a program designed to support the use of free or low-cost course materials.

Implementing affordable learning at a large scale requires four critical activities, Hanley explained:

1) Enabling ecosystems. "Leadership is essential," particularly at the chancellor and provost levels, Hanley asserted. "They put money behind the initiatives that let this happen. They often change policies. They will help develop business relationships." If institutional leadership doesn't create an environment that enables funding and other kinds of support, broad adoption for affordable learning isn't possible.

2) Developing demand. Here's where organizational change comes into play. Faculty need to have an "intrinsic drive," said Hanley, to consider looking at OER or other affordable options. That requires a plan that lays out professional development and training, support and "community communications," he explained. "It really is about how you get a culture and faculty and academic disciplines saying, 'I want to do something different.'" One way Cal State spurs participation is by showcasing ALS work by each campus and each instructor online.

3) Creating capabilities. You have to make it easy and convenient for faculty to find and identify the right materials to use in their classes. If you don't give them technology to simplify that part of the work, said Hanley, "forget it." As an example, he pointed to the California Open Online Library for Education, or COOL4Ed, a joint project of Cal State, the University of California System and the state's community colleges that focuses on identifying alternative class materials for the 50 most attended courses in those schools. One especially valuable search field allows the user to plug in the ISBN from a "big publisher textbook" to receive a list of related free and open textbooks that address comparable learning objectives for that course.

4) Leveraging content providers. While OER is an obvious source of affordable content, it's not the only one. "You can't just sell OER, honestly, because there's not enough OER to cover all the instructional needs that our faculty members have," Hanley said. So faculty may incorporate the use of library materials into their courses, author their own materials or choose digital textbooks for which the institution has contracted a discount rate through e-book distributors.

More than a third of California State University, Dominguez Hills faculty have chosen free or low-cost course materials over traditional textbooks. (photo courtesy of CSU Dominguez Hills)

ALS is working. For example, four years ago CSU Dominguez Hills began the work of shifting faculty to lower cost or free materials. Now more than a third of its 750 faculty members participate, Hanley reported. Hanley counted off the ways the university gained that level of adoption: "The provost and the president were supporting it. We had programs. We had funding. We provided faculty access to tools and professional development. They had local leadership. They had a librarian who was helping faculty find library materials. They changed the way they did procurement."

Cal State has also exported ALS to the State University of New York and the University System of Georgia, for which MERLOT acts as the service provider.

What an OER Transformation Looks Like

Cal State isn't the only place where OER miracles are occurring. Across the country Virginia-based Tidewater Community College, a system with four campuses and 42,440 students, has introduced the first all-OER degree. The "Z-Degree," as it's called (for "zero textbook cost"), launched its associate of science in business administration in fall 2013 based solely on openly licensed content.

The whole idea was ignited when Daniel DeMarte, VP for academic affairs and chief academic officer, attended a meeting at which OER advisory Lumen Learning's David Wiley spoke. Wiley, a veritable godfather in OER, told DeMarte that no institution had yet undertaken the launch of a full OER-based program. DeMarte went back to work determined to undertake what nobody else had tried before. The ecosystem was, in ALS parlance, enabled.

The business degree program was chosen for two primary reasons: enrollment figures and the availability of high-quality resources, explained professor Linda Williams. It was also a decision influenced by input from Lumen, which has advised the college throughout the development of the program.

Williams, who acted as the faculty team leader on the project, pointed out that a business degree encompasses more than just business. What Tidewater proposed to do was develop courses that used OER in everything, from history, art and music to math and business — even PE. The initial project team had 13 faculty members who signed on to rebuild 21 courses across all four campuses — to make it possible for a student to graduate in two years without spending a dime on course materials.

These were not people experienced in open educational resources. Up to that point, Williams added, "No one at Tidewater had experience using peer-rated OER content in a deliberate fashion." The team was a true cross-section — full-time, adjunct, administrative faculty — "hand-selected," Williams said, for their potential willingness "to take on this insane venture." Some faculty listened to the pitch and opted out. Others that the leadership team wasn't as enthusiastic about "ended up being our rock stars."

Affordability was a big driver of faculty participation. As Williams laid it out, "It's not palatable to look at a student who is literally struggling to make ends meet and think, 'Sure. Scrape up another $300 for a book when I could have done something different that gives you an even better educational experience.'"

Then there's the "philosophical" aspect: "Faculty are just done with publisher control over our subject-matter expertise," she said. "They write the books. They write the assignments. They give us these whiz-bang online sites that kind of robo-teach." By signing onto the Z-Degree, faculty were "wrestling back their academic freedom."

Creating capabilities among faculty — helping point them to the right OER materials — meant firing up Excel. "We stripped the courses down to the learning outcomes and literally entered those into these big mapping templates," Williams said. Then the faculty wrote the objectives that would, in a traditional textbook, appear at the start of the chapter. "You lose those when you lose the book," she pointed out. Then the instructors selected content based on alignment. In that, they were aided by Lumen, which could point them to the best materials available at that time so they weren't starting entirely from a blank slate.

Unlike Cal State, Tidewater had no interest in leveraging any content providers other than those it could obtain under a Creative Commons license. In that, they did run into barriers. For example, an introduction to accounting class needed some way to allow students to work on problems and have them graded automatically, a capability they already had in the course. Rather than revert to "worksheets and pencils or calculator tape," the group improvised. As Williams explained, they worked with MyOpenMath "to see if we could force their platform to mirror and really mimic an accounting auto-grader."

Two-and-a-half years after launch, Z-Degree has hit a milestone: A thousand students are enrolled. All of the original courses have been redesigned from the ground up to address weak areas in the curriculum. And the program keeps growing: Now there are 30 different Z courses, not counting other classes at Tidewater that also use OER but for which the faculty haven't sought the official "Z" designation. By fall 2016, the college hopes to launch a Z degree for applied science in criminal justice, and eventually another degree in general studies and social science.

Williams referenced a chemistry instructor from one of the other campuses who showed up at her office one day, who wanted to submit two chemistry courses and labs she had put together using OER. "I just looked at her, and I was like, 'What? You're kidding me!' No request for a stipend. No request for release time. She just did it. This is what happens when you do an OER implementation correctly," Williams declared. "It is a spark that literally becomes a wildfire among faculty."

Getting Started With OER

  • Cal State's Affordable Learning Solutions site offers jumps to free course materials, online courses, e-textbooks, and advice and planning tools for deploying an ALS initiative.
  • Tidewater's Williams has developed an entire "Pathways" course to help faculty learn how to adopt, use and repurpose OER. The professional development program culminates with faculty creating original openly licensed content they can insert into their courses.
  • Lumen Learning's Candela, where Pathways is available, also maintains a catalog of OER-based courses for 50-plus subjects, including those developed at Tidewater.
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