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6 Principles for Measuring the Cost Savings of OER

laptop and open book

A new report from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), a nonprofit regional organization devoted to advancing cooperation and resource sharing in higher education, advocates for more consistent approaches to determine the savings and benefits of adopting open educational resources. The report, "Toward Convergence: Creating Clarity to Drive More Consistency in Understanding the Benefits and Costs of OER," was produced in partnership with the National Consortium for Open Education Resources, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

To help guide decision-makers in making a cost-benefit case for OER, the report offered six key principles, based on research literature, informant interviews and workgroup discussions:

1) What you need to know depends on where you sit. In other words, consider your audience: Stakeholders at different levels have different informational needs when it comes to understanding the benefits of OER programs. For instance, governors and legislators might focus on the general direction and magnitude of the impact of OER, the report pointed out, while college and department leaders may require more details on specific costs and benefits. "OER advocates should keep these distinctions in mind and ensure they tailor their messages to their audiences," the report recommended. "Departments may want or need more fine-grained data than institutions, institutions may need more fine-grained data than systems, and systems may need more fine-grained data than legislatures."     

2) Access to course materials should be equitable. In principle, every student should have full and ongoing access to the learning materials required for a course, the report asserted. Yet in reality, students often have varying levels of access to assigned materials: They might purchase an out-of-date textbook edition to save on cost, rent or check out materials from the library, or simply go without. If an OER cost-savings calculation is based on actual student purchasing behavior, the savings appear to be less, because the approach fails to take into account the full cost of every student receiving equitable access to course materials. "It is crucial to ensure cost-savings estimates do not further inequities, especially when they influence policy or decision-making," the report said. "Instead, student cost savings calculations and analyses used for policy and decisions about OER implementation should assume if a learning resource material is assigned for a class, all students should have equal first-day and ongoing access to it."

3) Costs should account for implementation costs unique to OER. The report acknowledged that "there are faculty and administrative costs associated with developing and implementing OER." However, it's important to differentiate these costs from the more general costs of course development. "All course development requires planning, assessment, an integration of learning materials," the report noted, and this work takes place whether a faculty member is choosing OER or a new commercial learning resource. "Institutions may have opportunities to align OER implementation with existing course development cycles to minimize costs."

4) Adopting/adapting existing OER can reduce costs. By nature, open educational resources are openly available to be used by anyone — and the vast library of existing OER is an important consideration in any cost calculation. "New OER efforts should focus on integrating and adapting existing course material rather than creating new material, the report said. "Cost and benefit estimates should also consider the benefits of scaling these resources more broadly, and planning efforts should encourage faculty to leverage existing resources."

5) OER support learning as well as commercial resources. A multitude of studies have found that courses with OER demonstrate student learning outcomes that are at least as good or better compared to those using traditional materials. "The evidence is clear: OER, when implemented well, can help support student learning as measured by exams and grades and has the potential to improve students' course success, all of which may support students along the path to college completion," the report said.

6) OER benefits beyond student cost savings should be acknowledged. "As OER and the movement to increase its use across higher education matures, the research continues to show the benefits of OER go far beyond dollars and cents savings for students," the report pointed out. Among the benefits: greater faculty collaboration, more up-to-date course content, pedagogical improvements, positive impacts on student completion, and more. "It is important for OER leaders to identify and highlight all the benefits associated with their work and to look beyond simple cost-savings efforts."

The full report, including detailed frameworks for calculating student cost savings and cost-benefit analyses, is available on the MHEC site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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