Open Education Resources: Will They Transform Curriculum Planning?

OERs hold great potential, and community colleges are at the forefront of large-scale adoption.

by Lisa Kopochinski / July 22, 2016

This article originally appeared in the Q2 issue of Converge magazine.

In an effort to lower education costs and create an environment where faculty can have greater freedom in their teaching methods and content, community colleges are utilizing open education resources (OER) and transforming the way they operate.

While four-year colleges are often more decentralized — with each professor determining which textbooks are required and creating a syllabus — community colleges are driving OER forward because their curriculums and syllabi tend to be set systemwide.

“Community colleges are at the forefront of OER adoption on a large scale,” said Barbara Illowsky, dean of basic skills and open educational resources for the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative. “Community faculty spend their time teaching and improving their teaching [methods], instead of having a research requirement.” A mathematics and statistics professor at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., since 1989, Illowsky was the first project director of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER).

CCCOER was founded in 2007 by Martha Kanter at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District to provide a voice for community colleges in the open education community. Nine years ago very little OER existed that was appropriate for two-year college curriculum. Faculty were concerned about the costs of textbooks for their students and were using primarily public-domain and free (but not openly licensed) materials in their classrooms. 

Today there are grant programs such as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training and many privately funded and state efforts that have helped to grow awareness and also development of OER.

“CCCOER joined the Open Education Consortium a few years ago,” said Illowsky. “We now have over 250 community college members throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

Advancing Open Ed

State leaders across the country are sending the message that they will support schools that adopt openly licensed educational resources.

The U.S. Department of Education announced 13 state commitments to advance OER at a #GoOpen Exchange event on Feb. 26. With OER, educators pull learning materials from a variety of sources at no cost and can mash them up in their classrooms to help students learn.

“When we started, there was no guidance, no support for doing this,” said Joseph South, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. “#GoOpen states make open education resources the center of their state’s strategy.”

The 13 #GoOpen states are:
North Carolina
Rhode Island

Along with these states, 31 school districts pledged to replace at least one textbook with OER material in the next year. Nine other ambassador districts that already have taken steps toward implementing OER will mentor them through the transition.

-- Jessica Mulholland and Tanya Roscorla


“On a more concrete level, colleges are doing a lot of things to support open education,” explained West. “Some colleges set goals of dollar savings for students. For example, the Maricopa Millions project from the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona is working to save students $5 million in five years. While other colleges, like my own, are building open education resource degree pathways. The Pierce Open Pathway is a university transfer degree where students never pay for textbooks. There are many colleges nationwide that are currently focusing on OER degree pathways.”

Charles Key is executive director of COT Education in Cupertino, Calif., an independent 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to create and support programs that increase access to affordable lifelong learning. Key said at many colleges across the country the adoption of OER is still happening from the bottom up, driven by individual instructors. 

“At others, whole academic departments come together to adopt OER across all of their courses,” he said. “For instance, the Scottsdale Community College math department in Arizona has had remarkable success with this approach. I expect that there are some colleges where adoption is being driven top-down, with the administration mandating or encouraging adoption campuswide.”

Key said OER provides enormous cost-effectiveness at the community college level, largely because the same teaching resources are being used as those for lower division courses at four-year colleges. “And because tuition is generally much lower at two-year colleges, teaching materials account for a much greater chunk of the total cost of attending,” he added.

Linda Williams, a professor of business management and administration at Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Chesapeake, Va., said removing textbook costs as a barrier to student access and success is probably the single largest driver of OER adoption at community colleges. “By eliminating textbook costs, a student may be able to reduce the cost of his or her degree by as much as 25 percent.”

Other benefits of OER include students having access to all course content on the first day of class.

At TCC, OER is used in a systematic way to replace publisher content in entire degree programs. It is this approach that has resulted in the nation’s first Z-Degree (zero-textbook-cost) with TCC’s associate of science in business administration program.

“Other colleges have focused on disciplines and have adopted OER to replace publisher content in all English or math courses,” Williams said. “At a large number of colleges, the OER movement is confined to pockets of ‘early adopter’ faculty who have engaged with the open education community. Among these faculty, we see a spectrum of adoption as well with some faculty converting their course to all OER and others using OER as a supplement to traditional content. Even if a college is not actively pursuing OER in their courses, OER is helping to start conversations with publishers and bookstores about low-cost alternatives for course textbooks and materials.”


While it’s easy to see the benefits that OER offers, it has its drawbacks. For instance, Williams said when TCC faculty have been surveyed, the same set of “barriers to adoption” continue to be identified.

These include the amount of time required to locate, vet and adopt content to replace traditional textbooks; the lack of large banks from which to create assessments; the lack of knowledge about licensing and what is and is not OER; and difficulty locating discipline and course-specific OER content that’s aligned to outcomes.

Quill West, open education project manager for the Pierce College District in Tacoma, Wash., said community colleges have varied approaches to implementing OER initiatives. Photo by Colin Wood
Key said one of the historic weaknesses of OER has been the relative lack of ancillaries (study guides, quizzes, etc.) that accompany the textbook. “OER adopters have traditionally had to provide their own ancillaries, while the major publishers can provide turnkey solutions that include everything from lesson plans to tests to sophisticated tracking of student activities,” he said. “This lack of support can make use of OER particularly challenging for community college instructors, who typically carry a very high teaching load.”

The other problem is that OER remains difficult to find. Traditionally most OER have been produced by individuals who then store their works on private websites or other distributed platforms. 

“Although there are some listing services such as collegeopentextbooks

.org, there is no global authoritative directory of OER,” said Key. “The advent of curated repositories — sponsored by either an institution, system or a government entity — has made it easier to locate high-quality OER, but there are still many worthwhile products available that remain difficult to locate. Community colleges can be particularly affected since they may have fewer resources available to search for OER.”

Mark Jenkins, director of e-learning and open education for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said their research has shown that one of the barriers to OER adoption was a lack of fit between institutional policies around intellectual property and the ways that OER allows faculty to work. 

“That’s not an OER problem,” he clarified. “That’s a problem anytime you introduce a new innovation or strategy into complicated organizations. Our response is to support OER implementation by creating language around ownership that meets institutional and faculty needs — little things like that are important for ‘norming’ OER in colleges.”

Another challenge is that OER can be time-consuming to curate and adapt, and that the techniques for being effective can be rather specific, Jenkins said. “That’s something that can be addressed through providing easy access to professional development opportunities and support services. We provide opportunities to learn and have no shortage of willing and enthusiastic participants.”

It’s clear that when looking at both sides of the OER equation, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

Una Daly, director of curriculum design and college outreach for the Open Education Consortium in the San Francisco area, said that in addition to significant savings to students over the past five years, their research has shown that learning outcomes for students (e.g., exams and class grades) have stayed the same or shown a slight improvement with use of OER.

“Retention and persistence data for students taking classes where OER is used appear to be improved, but more research in this area is needed to understand the drivers,” she said.

From a faculty perspective, the choice to move to OER is generally voluntary, and thus their motivation is strong.

“Many faculty select OER because they don’t want to teach to a textbook, but want to customize the learning experience for their students, which OER supports,” said Daly. “Switching to open content for a course involves work for faculty and other instructional staff and colleges who recognize that the value of this work will support it through release time or stipends. Faculty who use OER report that one of the benefits is more collaboration with other colleagues and staying more current in their discipline.”  


As for what is next, there has been some discussion that OER could make it so that 80 percent of curriculum is free, allowing students and school systems to invest their money into resources besides textbooks. But is this figure too enthusiastic?

“As far as the 80 percent number as a specific idea, I have no idea about that,” said Jenkins. “In the short term it seems too optimistic in our system, but I’ve been amazed by the rate of change in the OER community. New business models, easier adoption, better products and services are emerging all the time, and if you combine those usability factors with the incredible growth in policy support at the global, federal and state levels, it’s not unreasonable to say that OER is making serious inroads and that the rate of change is accelerating.”

Williams, meanwhile, believes the 80 percent figure for a free curriculum is an easy target to achieve and may already be an accurate estimate. However, she wonders whether the better question to ask is whether 80 percent of the curriculum will be “open.”

“To reach this target, content will need to be released for public access with intellectual property rights that specifically endow the user with the rights to revise, remix, redistribute and retain the content. If we ask if 80 percent of curriculum can be ‘openly licensed’ in the not-too-distant future, then the answer is that it is possible, but it will not happen quickly.”