When Melissa Hardy took over a biology laboratory class at Salt Lake Community College, she inherited a commercial lab manual that left much to be desired. It was out of date. It didn’t align with the structure of her course. And it cost each student $100, a price they couldn’t avoid by purchasing a used copy, since the book was designed to be written in.
“It was not good at all,” Hardy says. “I taught with it for one semester and knew it was not going to work.”
So Hardy and a colleague decided to create their own lab manual—and make it open access. They worked nights and weekends to develop the resource, which can be used digitally through a WordPress website or downloaded as a PDF. They added activities that take advantage of resources in their region, like a lab that has students hammer rock from a local quarry to look for trilobite fossils.
The new manual, Hardy says, has been a success. Students love it because it’s free, while Hardy is pleased that its labs about bacteria, plants, fungi and animals now proceed in the order she prefers.
Best of all, she says, “it’s super adaptable.” If she wants to add or change anything along the way, she can.
Much of the attention that open educational resources have earned focuses on their low cost. After all, a free or inexpensive alternative to a pricey commercial textbook can make a big difference for students at institutions like Salt Lake Community College, who are “mostly not affluent,” Hardy says.
But OER advocates think open access course materials hold another kind of promise for students, too. Designed to be flexible and alterable, educators and students can continually test how well they work and improve them as necessary, “ensuring the course materials are better every semester than they were the semester before,” says David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, a company that sells low-cost open textbooks and courseware.
“Every course should be better every time it’s taught,” he says. “It’s totally within our capability to do it.”
That kind of repeated improvement is a top priority for some OER creators, especially those, like Lumen, that produce digital courseware intended to shephard students through the learning process more effectively than a typical textbook does.
In addition to providing students with text and video content, courseware tools also have built-in nudges and assessments—sometimes personalized—that generate instant feedback about whether students are mastering the assigned material.
That data allows an entity like Lumen to “crunch the numbers and figure out where the problems are” with courseware texts and tests, then fix those problems, says Steve Greenlaw, a professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington, who has helped to produce OER resources for Lumen and for OpenStax, a nonprofit OER publisher, and who uses Lumen courseware with his own classes.
Of course, commercial courseware also generates student outcome data, which traditional publishers could use to improve their products, too. But faculty aren’t usually able to alter copyrighted commercial materials on the fly to suit the needs of their particular students.
They can with OER materials.
“I’ve been able to customize my version of the Lumen courseware to better match my course,” Greenlaw says. “That allows me to make mid-course corrections—or mid-week corrections.”
That approach underscores why some advocates view OER courseware as a promising tool in the field of learning engineering, which aims to test and change teaching practices and materials to improve student outcomes on a large scale.
“You want to develop something that can evolve quickly so that you have a sense that it’s engaging,” says John Richards, an education consultant who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Contrast doing something and revising quickly with a textbook company that spends seven years to devise a textbook and hopes to hell that it works.”
It Takes Two
Indeed, digital open access tools have the two key ingredients required to empower faculty to continuously improve their classes, Wiley believes. The “digital” factor provides instructors with data about what changes they need to make to their materials or teaching, while the “open access” factor makes it legal—and hopefully simple—to accomplish those changes themselves.
That means OER courseware is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of learning engineering, Wiley argues.
“It’s very much a peanut-butter-and-chocolate kind of relationship,” he explains. “You need to bring both together, and then you can do this kind of learning engineering activity.”
Taking that level of responsibility for student success is a priority for some OER advocates like Greenlaw and Hardy, both of whom ran experiments to make sure their students performed at least as well with OER materials as they did with traditional textbooks before officially making the shift.
“What I’ve long said about OER is, it really makes the instructor think differently about their teaching and their courses,” Greenlaw says. “It gives you the possibility of doing these revisions. Suddenly you think about stuff you never thought about before.”
Not all faculty have the interest or time to constantly analyze, tweak and tinker with open courseware, however. Recognizing this, Lumen nudges instructors, too, by publishing data about which concepts student courseware users tend to struggle with most. The goal is to make it easy for instructors to make their courses better and better over time.
“If faculty say, ‘I have three hours, I wonder where I can spend it,’ they can look at the analysis that is already done,” Wiley says.
If "digital" and "open access" are the conjoined characteristics that lead to improved course materials, so "affordability" and "continual improvement" may be twin—not rival—goals for the broader OER movement.
When a course isn't optimized or its materials aren't especially useful, students may be more likely to fail, Hardy says. Having to retake a key class—like the introductory biology courses she teaches—can cost students not only extra money, but also time, delaying some on their journeys toward careers in science and health care.
With each lab experiment Hardy improves, she is working to spare them that expense.