Open Educational Resources

Major Study Finds OER Students Do Just as Well — or Better

In the largest study of its kind, a group of researchers has examined the use of open educational resources (OER) and found that students who used OER in their undergraduate courses performed as well or better than those assigned commercial textbooks.

The project was undertaken by researchers from Brigham Young University, the Michigan State Department of Education and Lumen Learning, a not-for-profit focused on the use of open courseware.

The study involved 5,000 students using OER and more than 11,000 "control" students using standard textbooks in courses at 10 different institutions around the country enrolled in 15 different undergraduate courses. It focused on five measures of student success — course completion, final grade, final grade of C- or higher, enrollment intensity and enrollment intensity in the following semester.

In the area of course completion, the researchers found "almost no significant differences" between the two groups with a couple of exceptions. In Business 110 and Biology 111 students in the OER group showed higher rates of completion than students in the control. For example, in the business class, 21 percent of commercial textbook users withdrew; in the OER group only six percent withdrew.

In the area of student achievement (passing with a C- or better grade), the outcome was mixed. In nine courses researchers saw no significant differences. In five courses, the OER users were more likely to pass the course than those in the control group. In one course, Business 110, students in the control group surpassed students using OER.

The same kind of mix surfaced in course grades. In 10 courses, researchers found no significant difference. In four courses OER students achieved higher grades; in one course, Business 110, students using commercial textbooks did better.

In terms of "enrollment intensity" — how many credits a student was pursuing — OER students carried an average credit load of 13 in the fall and 11 for the winter; commercial textbook users had an average of 11 in the fall and 9 in the winter. Also, students in courses using OER enrolled in more credit courses for the next semester. The researchers noted that this could have been due to the cost savings associated with OER. In community college settings, particularly, where tuition costs are based directly on the number of credits taken with no cap on costs for full-time enrollment, the funds saved on not having to purchase textbooks could be applied to tuition for additional courses.

The researchers decided that the moderate differences in completion rates and final grades between the control and treatment groups were probably due to access. Some portion of students in the control group probably didn't purchase the textbook assigned due to cost or other factors, putting those students at an "academic disadvantage." Because the OER materials were openly and freely licensed, all students in the OER group had access to all the course materials from the very first day of class. "Consequently, we would expect some enhanced probability of success for members of the treatment group," the researchers reported.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars and person-hours have been invested in improving in-class instructional designs, intelligent tutoring systems, adaptive instructional systems and other design-related innovations intended to improve student outcomes," the researchers wrote. "The current study demonstrates that at least one non-instructional design option exists that can effectively improve student outcomes."

"In an introductory class like College Algebra, the textbook isn't there to entertain, it's there to teach a topic," said Lane Fischer, co-author of the study and an associate professor at Brigham Young in the School of Education, "and Algebra hasn't changed a lot in the past 50 years, so you don't need the latest, most expensive book to teach it well. There are comparable free resources available, and students really appreciate saving money."

"Given the present research," added John Hilton, III, co-author and Brigham Young assistant professor in religious education, "policy makers, researchers and educators need to carefully examine the ethics of requiring students to purchase traditional textbooks when high-quality openly licensed alternatives are freely available."

The research report, published in the December 2015 issue of Journal of Computing in Higher Education, is available openly online here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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