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Why the Switch to OER Is Easier Than You Think

Taking into account library articles, web links, videos, simulations and more, many courses are already using a number of open education resources — and the move to full OER doesn't necessarily mean a total revamp, according to research out of Excelsior College.

A recent survey of 3,000 faculty members by Babson College reported that six in 10 instructors (58 percent) were "generally unaware" of open educational resources (OER). Some were downright resistant to the whole idea. "I am against freely giving faculty intellectual property," declared one respondent. "It is tantamount to working for nothing. The universities don't want to pay us and the book companies don't want to pay us."

But it's also possible that people are using OER and just don't know it, as an ongoing OER research project at Excelsior College is discovering. The thought of converting courses to OER can be "very daunting," pointed out researcher and instructional technologist Kimberly Barss. "I have seen that we have really good courses with tons of links and simulations from the internet that didn't cost anything," she said, noting that while professors often assume that a switch to OER means redoing their entire course, it doesn't have to be that way. She thinks that by showing faculty how close they are to being fully OER supported, the endeavor becomes more doable — like a stretch goal and not a completely new undertaking.

Excelsior is a New York-based private, nonprofit institution running online programs for degree completers who want to advance their careers. The school's mission is to serve students "traditionally underrepresented in higher education." The latest strategic initiative puts an emphasis on affordability, and OER plays into that goal. Barss remembers starting at another school as a doctoral student with a new baby and being unable to afford the books: "So I didn't buy them. The school that I was attending provided some digital resources for us. I just started to think, well, why can't we always have digital resources that we don't have to pay extra for?"

Research Outcomes

The research began in Excelsior's School of Business & Technology, where out of 200 courses, 28 are fully supported by OER. In those, Barss and colleague Katie Hammer, an online program assistant in the college, examined the impact of OER on student enrollment, drops, completion (with grades of C or higher) and student qualitative feedback from end-of-course surveys.

Mostly, there was no difference. Students were getting the same grades and showing similar satisfaction with their courses. At first, that lack of distinction distressed Barss. "I thought it was a detriment to OER. I wanted it to be better," she recalled. "But in speaking with some of the assessment individuals, they said, 'No, that's great!'" — the implication being that OER was living up to the quality and value of traditional course materials.   

However, one change that seemed to be consistent was growing enrollment in fully OER classes. "When I look at each one of those terms, the enrollment is going up in a lot of these courses — in some cases almost as high as half again," said Barss.

Looking at 53 of the school's required and/or highest enrollment courses that weren't fully OER, the researchers evaluated the use of textbooks, library articles, readings, videos and other resources. They found that those were on average about 65 percent supported by OER — in other words, well on their way to being fully OER.

Now the research has turned its sights onto the Health Sciences program, which has a total of about 140 courses, of which 14 are fully OER-supported. Of two non-OER courses that have been examined so far, both are about 70 percent supported by OER. The health sciences are ripe for OER, said Barss, especially in the area of public health, "because of the immense government resources we have with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the [National Institutes of Health], where they have such a wealth of information. They even have simulations and images and videos that a school would be crazy not to use as a source because they're free and definitely up-to-date. And those are sources you don't have to worry about the quality of because they're vetted by experts."

One broad outcome of the work to date has been that Excelsior has received a bird's-eye view of its OER efforts. Currently, about 80 courses across the college are completely supported by OER. Administrators would like to see that increase to 100 by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. So the current area of emphasis is to prioritize where OER should strike next.

One obvious place to begin is to bring the "obstacle" courses into the fold. Those are the "most highly enrolled courses that result in the most failures and therefore are the biggest programmatic stumbling points," Barss explained. So far 14 have been identified with the most immediate need for conversion. As an example, she said, a microbiology course uses a textbook with a cost of $342. "We're looking to get rid of that one as soon as possible."

OER Lessons Learned

During the course of becoming the in-house OER expert at Excelsior, Barss has picked up a few lessons worth sharing.

Even the most unique courses hold possibilities for OER conversion. For example, among those examined in the College of Business & Technology are programs focused on nuclear technologies. OER for those "are not out there in abundance," acknowledged Barss. But even there, she's heard "whisperings" of a National Science Foundation grant to develop and distribute OER for that segment.

Seek help from the experts. Excelsior became a MERLOT partner at the beginning of its OER efforts. "They have project director meetings, they have conferences, they have educational webinars, and that was really helpful," insisted Barss. "They're structured, thoughtful, experienced. Having that sort of mentored guidance has been very helpful."

Internal audiences need to know just what OER looks like. Currently, the college is promoting EnCORE, a catalog organized by course and course type, to let faculty and program directors know what kind of OER is in use in a particular school or discipline, which will enable them "to share and use resources too," said Barss. The EnCORE work is a branded version of the MERLOT OER infrastructure.

Make it easy for faculty. One of Barss' favorite tricks is to share a field on EnCORE where an instructor can enter the ISBN of his or her current textbook to locate a list of related free digital materials. "That is really just the most amazing thing," she marveled. "I try to give that to anyone I ever possibly can. It's so much more helpful than going at it blindly." The college has also developed a set of rubrics to help faculty evaluate the quality of the OER they're considering, "so they don't feel like they're just unsupported or blindly choosing."

Consider tying OER conversion to other compliance efforts.In many cases, converting to OER is not only free, said Barss, but also adheres to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making a course more universally accessible. "While we do find some resources that are great and we can't use them, that's definitely more the exception than the rule," she added.

To gain buy-in, share the data. "I've found that people respond well to numbers," Barss noted. To that end, when she has the time, she undertakes the tedious work of calculating how much money students save by not having to buy textbooks. That includes pulling together information on textbook prices and class enrollment. Among 26 of the 28 courses in the College of Business & Tech that are fully OER, the savings for the year was $569,711.06. (The remaining two courses haven't been delivered to students yet.) Among the 80 courses college-wide that use OER completely, a single term for just half of those courses saved nearly $1.3 million.

Ultimately, Barss said, she has learned that the use of OER results in a better quality class. "It's so easy to go, 'OK, the next edition of the textbook came out. We'll use that.' Then you don't pay as much attention to the integration or the alignment with outcomes or how students are going to interact with it or whether your exam is fully supported." The use of OER forces the instructor "to evaluate every aspect of the course," she noted. While that aspect of the research can't be "isolated from our results, I really believe the courses are better designed. The two are inseparable. And I think that's probably one of the best things that's come of this."

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