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Online ed and OER: the perfect pairing

By Fred Lokken

Online education has had a phenomenal impact on higher education by increasing access for students. This format for learning also has fostered greater flexibility, convenience and completion for traditional and nontraditional students alike. The “physicality” of learning is no longer a requirement, nor is the requirement to be present at a specific day/time. The impact on higher education has been extraordinary and revolutionary.

Every mode or format of instruction – including online learning – presents certain challenges as well. For instance, students – and faculty – are required to have regular access to a device and decent wi-fi. We learned during the pandemic that the digital divide is real for many of our students – but we also learned that the digital divide is also very real for many of our faculty (especially our part-time faculty). The ability to work independently (maturity and organizational skills) is another challenge that impairs overall student performance and success in an online class.

The rise of OER

For many faculty, perhaps one of the most frustrating challenges relates to the logistics  involved in acquiring the course materials (textbook) for a virtual class. Students are not able to just pop into the campus bookstore anymore. They are hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from campus. Mistakes in ordering (wrong ISBN), the high cost of most textbooks, shipping delays and supply chain issues can also present problems for students – and undermine their ability to succeed and complete the course.

This article is part of a biweekly series provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

There is always the e-book option, but that opens the door to access code issues and normally eliminates the student’s chances of finding a more affordable alternative.

The open educational resources (OER) movement has provided a wonderful solution for these challenges. OER materials have been around for a long time but historically have had to deal with substantial resistance from faculty. As the 2022 ITC National Survey results indicate, major roadblocks to OER adoption continue to concern faculty:

Faculty concerns with OER materials:

  • 75%     Time needed to locate/evaluate OER resources and materials
  • 64%      Lack of faculty awareness
  • 48%      Lack of ancillary materials
  • 40%      Credibility of OER materials
  • 12%      Resistance from administrators

In addition, many campuses do not provide faculty with any assistance, even if they want to make the shift to OER materials. Fortunately, the momentum for the OER movement has shifted dramatically in recent years. Faculty, instructional designers and administrators have been motivated by a variety of factors to embrace the OER solution:

  • Libraries/Learning Commons have stepped up to provide assistance in researching available OER solutions.
  • Many have been motivated by several major challenges with the traditional model of higher education. Specifically, the increased costs associated with higher education – and especially the dramatic increases in the cost of textbooks/ancillary website support.
  • With the advent of financial aid requirement “regular and substantive activity,” many online programs have been frustrated with the challenge of trying to track student activity in textbook-associated 3rd party websites.
  • Organizations like the Community College Consortium for OER, Creative Commons and OpenStax, as well as back-to-back funding from the federal government, have boosted the credibility of the movement.
  • For community colleges, national data that confirmed that six in 10 of students do not buy the textbook has been a sobering revelation. This reality has contributed greatly to undermining a student’s chances for successful completion.
  • A growing number of campuses are launching incentive programs to help faculty and instructional designers explore and adopt OER solutions (textbook cost reduction strategies).

All of this was reflected in the results of the most recent ITC survey which confirmed that 64% of respondents believed OER would have a significant impact in the next three to five years.

A perfect pairing

Online learning and OER materials were made for each other. An OER textbook and ancillary materials are normally delivered as e-versions (PDFs). This ensures that the material can be easily inserted into an online course, and also ensures that the course textbook and associated materials are available to students on the first day of class. Students save a great deal of money – which helps to counter-balance the increased cost for higher education, AND students (and faculty) don’t need to deal with textbook delays, mistakes. This ensures that the student has the correct materials on the first day of class.  The OER solution is seamless, immediate and free!

The expanded adoption of OER textbooks and materials has also inspired the effort to create fully online degree programs based on the exclusive use of OER – the “Z-Degree.” This is a very logical extension of the OER movement and affirms a seamless inclusion of all relevant course materials at no-cost or very low-cost for a full degree. As Education Data pointed out in a July 22 article:

The average postsecondary student spends between $628 and $1,471 annually for books and supplies as of the 2021-2022 academic year. Hard copy books can cost as much as $400, with an average price between $80 and $150. The price of textbooks increases by an average of 12% with each new edition.

The ability to eliminate – or at least significantly reduce – this cost for students can have profound positive impacts on existing barriers to student completion as well as reduce aggregate student debt. The serendipitous pairing of online education with OER resources is the proverbial match made in heaven. This is reflective of the 21st-century drivers of higher education – increased role for technology, the increased need to find ways to address ever-increasing costs, AND the need to increase student success and completion.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.