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Achieving the Dream Study Finds OER Works

college student carrying books

A multi-layered, multi-year study on the use of open educational resources found that in some colleges, students who took multiple OER courses earned more credits on average over time than similar students who took no OER courses. In six colleges of 11, the number of additional credits earned by those students ranged from two to eight. In the remaining five colleges there was no statistical difference.

That research was part of a broader project undertaken by Achieving the Dream, whose "OER Degree Initiative" helped 38 schools across the country offer 6,600 OER course sections over two-and-a-half years. Some 160,000 students were able to attend those courses, and about 2,000 instructors participated in the development and delivery of those classes. The number of instructors who ended up teaching OER courses grew from an average of 10 at each institution to 42. The project counted almost 600 redesigned courses that could be certified as OER. And the savings tallied to $10.7 million in course material costs.

Achieving the Dream is a national nonprofit that works with a network of community colleges to help students succeed. The OER project invited two-year public institutions to apply for three-year grants to help them create new OER degree programs. Thirty-eight signed on for the work. Those schools received technical assistance to help faculty and staff redesign courses to use OER; they also had access to a community of practice drawing other faculty and OER experts. All were subject to research scrutiny by SRI Education, a division of research company SRI International, and education consultancy rpk Group.

The latest report shared a number of results:

  • Instructors undertook the OER work "primarily to reduce financial burden on students" and to make sure students had access to the course content.
  • Those instructors "bore the brunt of the work" to convert courses to OER, which they reported "took much more time than developing traditional courses." However, the schools themselves also helped by identifying courses required for degrees ripe for conversion, recruiting additional faculty to participate and joining in on the redesign work. Administrative staff also contributed by doing what they could in making sure students knew about the OER options.
  • Among a group of five institutions that offered detailed cost data to the researchers, schools spent an average of $576,000 to develop the OER programs (with a range of $300,000 to $1 million). Two-thirds of that was consumed by the development costs; the other third went to support the program. Some of those schools "expected to recoup their investments" and even generate a positive return through students taking more credits, which in turn boosted tuition and fee revenue. The cost of providing OER degree classes ($70 per student) dropped dramatically as enrollment in those courses grew. Student savings worked out to $65 or more per student per course.

The report offered several observations, including this one: "The concept of an OER degree pathway was useful in setting a point on the horizon around which to galvanize cross-institutional activity." The idea of helping students earn their degrees without having to pay a "single dollar" for course materials was "compelling and easy to understand and communicate." So was the finding that "cumulative exposure" to courses that use OER can improve a student's "academic trajectories."

By the end of the project, the colleges had put "critical pieces" into place, such as adding OER tags to course catalogs so that students could easily identify them. Likewise, "instructors were mostly optimistic" about the sustainability of OER degree programs. And more than eight in 10 of those faculty members reported that for courses they'd taught as OER, they'd never go back to the "traditional materials."

The report, "OER at Scale: The Academic and Economic Outcomes of Achieving the Dream's OER Degree Initiative," is openly available on the Achieving the Dream website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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