OER materials

OER courses can boost engagement, new study says


A two-year study reveals that instructors found OER materials helped them make positive changes to their teaching

Open educational resources (OER) offer a host of benefits to students and faculty, according to a new study of 38 community colleges across 13 states.

More than 60 percent of students in the participating community colleges say they experienced a higher-quality learning experience in an OER course compared to a typical course.

The two-year study, conducted by SRI International and rpk GROUP and released by Achieving the Dream (ATD), is among the first to examine the direct costs to institutions for supporting broad expansion of OER and degree pathways, and the direct cost for implementing OER degrees is roughly $500,000 per institution over two years.

Creating OER courses and degrees is often time-consuming, but instructors in several community colleges said they changed their instruction as a direct result of working with the open materials.

Using OER materials helped the instructors align materials better with learning goals, and instructors who were already using student-centered and hands-on learning strategies said the materials helped them enhance their practices.

Some instructors also saw students engaging more with the materials than with textbooks, possibly because they are more relevant and students can be involved in creating their learning experience.

“The study indicates that, based on two years of implementation across scores of colleges, OER can be an important tool in helping more students—and particularly low-income and underrepresented students—afford college, engage actively in their learning, persist in their studies, and ultimately complete,” says Dr. Karen A Stout, ATD president.

“Data show that even using the most conservative estimates, cost savings are significant and that OER content plays a role in helping strengthen instruction and learning across not just a few courses but entire degree pathways.”

Students saved between $66 and $121 per course, with the lower number based on a detailed calculation for determining savings that takes into account students’ typical purchasing behavior. That amounts to, at minimum, $6.5 million net savings to students across 32 institutions in just two years.

Low-income students are using these resources to cover college tuition, personal expenses like rent and child care, learning materials, and courses that can help them stay in school.

About half of Pell Grant recipients (48 percent) and more than half of underrepresented minorities (52 percent) say the courses will have a significant impact on their ability to afford college, compared to 41 percent for other students.

Institutional strategies for implementation

College officials say that OER supports their priorities of reducing costs, bolstering equity and completion, and speeding time to degree, the report notes. Meanwhile, leaders from ATD report that colleges are using a broad range of strategies to build support for OER on campus, free faculty time, and establish a culture that supports implementation. Institutions are using resources from the OER initiative to incentivize faculty to develop courses and degree pathways and to expand the role of librarians and technologists to support faculty.

“Many institutions are rethinking who they hire and are paying more attention to professional development in pedagogy and effective practice as well as looking at ways to alter tenure and promotion policies to incentivize faculty use of OER,” says Dr. Richard Sebastian, director of the OER Degree Initiative at ATD.

To promote sustainability, institutions are reallocating funds to support OER programs, making better use of existing student fees or charging a small course fee to fund ongoing efforts that does not add significantly to student cost. Institutions are also starting to track tuition recapture based on the drop in attrition in many OER courses to better understand the return on investment.

Key findings

Cost savings to students

  • Cost savings to students have been calculated more realistically, and OER courses and degree programs can play a significant role in addressing the rising cost of college for students, particularly low-income students enrolled at community colleges.
  • Savings from these open courses can help students with financial challenges that might interfere with their ability to continue and succeed in their program of study.

Student perceptions and awareness

  • Students find OER materials more relevant, easier to navigate, and better aligned with learning objectives than traditional textbooks, but they are often not aware of the available of these courses and degree programs, suggesting that those who can most benefit may not be taking full advantage.

Cost to institutions

  • Costs for implementing OER are significant but not insurmountable. The cost of developing such a course averaged $11,700 (salary and benefits) at the five colleges that were involved in a detailed analysis to determine the cost of courses during the first year of the grant.

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Laura Ascione
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