More colleges are using free educational resources

By Ellie Ashford

The use of open educational resources promotes faculty and student engagement in teaching and learning, according to advocates.

Students at Maricopa Community Colleges (MCC) in Arizona have done just as well academically with open educational resources (OER) as with traditional, high-priced textbooks.

In addition, students and faculty are more engaged in teaching and learning in courses that use OER, which are free or low-cost teaching and learning materials, and students are more likely to complete degrees faster.

Those benefits, as well as the cost savings, could be used in marketing efforts aimed at encouraging more students to enroll, according to OER advocates.

MCC is among the growing number of community colleges that have been moving toward the creation of OER degree pathways since Tidewater Community College in Virginia pioneered the concept with its first no-cost “Z-degree,” in business, in 2013.

The Maricopa Millions OER Project was started in 2013 with the goal of using free and low-cost (less than $40 per course) instructional materials to save $5 million in five years.

That goal was achieved early; by fall 2016, the district had saved over $5.7 million, says Lisa Young, co-chair of Maricopa Millions and faculty director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Scottsdale Community College (SCC).

Outlining the need

When expensive textbooks are required, Young says, many students don’t have them on the first day of class and some never buy them.

In addition to reducing costs and ensuring all students start class on an equal footing, she says, the program was started because “we had pockets of innovation where faculty were doing it on their own. Faculty felt textbooks weren’t meeting their needs.”

So far, 18 courses using OER have been approved for the Maricopa Millions Project in English, developmental education, chemistry, general business, psychology, Spanish, statistics, public speaking and other courses.

The new goal for Maricopa Millions is the creation of OER degrees. SCC plans to offer an OER associate of arts degree in general studies and an OER general education certificate—both for transfer students.

The most important lessons learned from Maricopa Millions: Faculty engagement is critical, as is support from the administration, Young says. A steering committee for the project included the president, chancellor, IT personnel, instructional designers and faculty.

OER trends    

It’s hard to gauge the extent to which OER are used, as data is not tracked nationally, says Una Daly, director of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. OpenStax, a nonprofit based at Rice University, estimates the OER materials it provides led to savings of $42 million in textbook costs in 2015-16.

As the nation’s largest OER provider, OpenStax has created open textbooks for about 25 popular general education courses, allowing students and colleges to order relatively inexpensive printed copies for about $25 to $60 from Amazon or college bookstores.

Because there is so much good OER material available, Daly says, faculty are now more likely to adapt OER to their needs – by customizing them or eliminating unnecessary chapters – than to create their own OER from scratch.

When faculty do develop OER texts, it’s most often done in career and technical education. In one example cited by Daly, faculty at the College of the Canyons in California wrote an OER text for a course in water management when they couldn’t find good existing materials.

Some colleges give faculty release time or a stipend to help them create, update or adapt OER materials. A few community college systems, including those in Massachusetts, California and Michigan, award faculty grants for this work.

Giving faculty more control over their teaching and instructional materials means “faculty bring more passion to the classroom, and that leads to students feeling more engaged. We believe that contributes to completion and retention,” Daly says. “Does it take time and effort? Yes, but the results are worth it.”

How are librarians getting involved? Read the full article in Community College Daily to find out. Then continue the discussion on LinkedIn.


Ellie Ashford

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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