There’s new evidence that open educational resources may contribute to helping students complete college.
Students who took multiple community college courses that used only free or low-cost OER materials earned more credits over time than their peers who took classes that used traditional course materials such as textbooks, according to a new study.
The findings come out of the Achieving the Dream OER Degree Initiative, which provided grant money to 38 community colleges across 13 states to create degree pathways of courses that use OER materials instead of commercial textbooks. Through the two-and-a-half yearlong effort, nearly 2,000 instructors developed and taught 6,600 OER course sections that served 160,000 students.
Eleven of those institutions participated in a study about the academic and financial implications this kind of widespread OER adoption has on students, faculty and colleges. That research was conducted by SRI Education and rpk GROUP.
The findings show that students who took multiple OER-based classes managed to earn three more credits than their peers in traditional courses. The two groups’ cumulative GPAs were similar.
The "modest positive effect" on credits earned is not necessarily caused by the use of OER, cautions Rebecca Griffiths, principal education researcher at SRI education. It’s possible that the students who chose to enroll in new OER courses were more motivated and organized than their peers, and therefore they were more likely to succeed anyway.
However, because the study was conducted as institutions were still developing their OER degree pathways, Griffiths thinks future research on more established programs may yield more significant results, she said in a press briefing on Wednesday.
“The results were encouraging,” she said.
Funding for the initiative was provided by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ascendium Education Group and the Speedwell and Shelter Hill Foundations. This week, Hewlett announced it would provide $1 million in new support for OER degree pathways over the next two years.
“We’re beginning to see how the benefits of OER extend beyond cost savings to benefit teaching and learning,” said Angela DeBarger, a program officer in education at the foundation.
Free Isn’t Free
For students, OER texts are typically free, or nearly free. Students saved an average of $65 per OER course at colleges participating in the study.
The theory that those savings may help eliminate barriers for students is one of the big motivators for efforts like the Achieving the Dream initiative.
At Bay College, a two-year institution with campuses on Michigan’s upper peninsula that participated in the program, mathematics instructor Britt Slade hadn’t realized the expense of one of the textbooks she regularly assigned until a student complained about the pricetag.
“I had a very good student come to me and say, ‘I can’t afford this textbook.’ I happened to look up the cost, and it had shot up to almost $250, which was ridiculous,” Slade said. “The area where I’m from, there are lower-income families, and many times they have to wait for a financial aid check or paycheck to come through. OER has eliminated that issue.”
But adopting OER isn’t free for institutions. Overhauling courses to incorporate open materials instead of traditional textbooks requires large upfront investments of money and faculty time, an analysis of the initiative shows.
Creating an OER degree pathway cost between $300,000 and $1 million at five of the community colleges participating in the initiative that provided researchers with detailed spending data. Over two-and-a-half years, those costs averaged $70 per student enrolled in an OER course. However, by the end of the initiative, that average fell to $21 per student, as spending on new course development declined and the number of enrollments grew.
The biggest expense came from developing courses. STEM classes and those that used open interactive learning systems were the costliest to develop, while non-STEM courses that adopted existing OER materials cost the least. Faculty reported that creating OER courses took them 1.5 to 2 times longer than creating typical courses.
Although so far much OER adoption has been led by faculty enthusiasts working alone or in small clusters, the money, time and coordination required to develop an entire OER degree pathway suggests that “scaling up OER is probably not going to happen through heroic individual volunteer efforts,” Griffiths said.
Faculty at Bay College had mixed emotions about participating in the OER Degree Initiative because of “the sheer volume of work it involves,” Slade said. “You get so used to your publisher resources.”
But with the guidance and support of the college’s director of online learning, instructional designer and the librarian, Slade and her colleagues set to work creating more than 35 classes that use OER materials and an entire OER-based associate degree pathway. Seven, or about half, of Bay College’s math courses now use OER. Slade has designed four of them.
“The other three happened to be created by my husband—we’re half of the math faculty,” she added.
For some of the courses, Slade used “heavy customization” of existing open access resources, cobbling together pieces of multiple OER texts and writing her own homework problems. For other math subjects, she said she hasn’t been able to find appropriate open resources yet.
Spreading the Word
The study revealed positive attitudes about the effects of OER materials. In surveys of 2,400 students, between 50 and 60 percent rated their OER courses as higher in quality than their traditional courses.
In surveys of 1,200 instructors, about two-thirds reported that using OER materials at least somewhat changed their teaching methods and influenced their pedagogical beliefs. Seventy-one percent expected students to benefit from improved quality of course materials.
That matches Slade’s experience designing OER-based math classes.
“One unexpected benefit I saw was it really improved my curriculum. I had to find other resources, and I had to clean it up,” she said. “It made me as an instructor more independent, not being dictated to by a published textbook.”
At the community colleges that have successfully created OER degree pathways, at least one challenge remains, however: making students aware that the options exist.
“We were not communicating in the best ways to students what is OER and how do you find the OER sections in the course schedule,” said Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, in a press briefing on Wednesday.
This semester, Bay College has a seat count of 1,485 students in OER sections (some of which could be the same students in multiple classes) out of its current enrollment of about 1,800 students, according to Slade.
The college has been hosting “OER rallies”—featuring free food and knowledgeable faculty volunteers—to educate students about courses that use open-access materials. It also celebrates student savings from OER on “digital learning day,” marked around the country on February 27.
Slade credits the campus events, which have been picked up in local media coverage, and also support from academic advisors, with boosting student enrollment in OER courses: “That seems to have gotten the word out.”