Will OER Take Off in Higher Education?

Faculty have been slow to adopt open education resources, but Virginia's Tidewater Community College offers zero-cost degree programs, which might jump-start the ed tech trend.

by / June 19, 2017

Since the early 2000s, foundations, including such notables as Hewlett and Bill & Melinda Gates, have been funding efforts to develop open educational resources (OER). These resources, which can include everything from textbooks and videos to software and courses, are designed so people can have access to learning material at no charge, compared to the hefty price tag of traditional college textbooks. 

Adoption of these resources in colleges has been slow to take off, with just 5 percent of faculty requiring students to access these materials in their courses, according to a 2015-16 Babson survey of more than 3,000 U.S. faculty. But efforts to use OER in higher education continue to unfold.

In 2013, Tidewater Community College in Virginia started a trend by creating entire zero-cost degree (Z-Degree) programs with OER so students don't have to pay anything for their textbooks. OER is just one piece of the college's strategy to make learning resources more affordable for students.

"To me, it's somewhat irresponsible to not be pursuing OER options in driving down the costs for taxpayers," said Daniel DeMarte, vice president for academics affairs and chief academic officer at Tidewater Community College.

Other community colleges have followed suit by moving from experimenting with a few courses to developing entire degree pathways that use only these materials. In the process, they're grappling with how to make it pay in terms of time and money for the long haul. 

Much of the cost for developing these pathways is actually not financial or is indirectly financial, DeMarte said. For the pilot stage, Tidewater leaders picked programs with high student enrollment and a mix of both full-time and adjunct faculty, which helped make the Z Degree sustainable. Because faculty worked together with administrators, they helped drive decisions for these programs on training, types of content to use, course development processes, support for faculty and expectations for sharing the course with others. 

Another people factor that's helped Tidewater is engaging librarians, instructional designers and student services staff in the effort. By pulling in these support staff over time, Tidewater Community College has expanded its efforts. At least one librarian on each campus has OER in the job description, and now these librarians are being recruited away from Tidewater because of their experience.

On the financial side, Tidewater made it an internal budget priority to shift some funds to OER and later the college benefited from several grants. Donors and states have infused millions of dollars into Z-Degree initiatives at a variety of community colleges across the country. Grants are typically one-time, cover a period of one or two years, and come with restrictions on what type of work should be done with the funding.

In 2015, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave a $200,000 grant to Virginia Community Colleges for 15 community college pilots. Last year, $9.8 million went to 38 community colleges in 13 states from Achieving the Dream's investors. The California Legislature also approved $5 million for planning and implementation grants in California Community Colleges.

"The dollars are not meant to support a program for life," said LeBaron Woodyard, dean of academic affairs at California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. "The dollars are meant to get the college community together, to have a conversation about what they are trying to do, and to pull together the components to make that happen." In order to qualify for the California funding, grant applicants have to demonstrate how they will sustain the initiative beyond the grant funding.

While the Virginia Community College System is depending on grants from Achieving the Dream and the Hewlett Foundation now, its leaders want to move away from that dependence because of the restrictions and lack of sustainability long-term. How to fund the initiative down the road is still up for discussion, said Jenny Quarles, the director of teaching and learning technology in the Virginia Community College System who oversees the open educational resources initiative.

One thing is clear: Virginia doesn't want students paying extra fees to cover the cost of developing the degree pathways, Quarles said. And it's committed to looking at ways to internally fund the initiative. Leaders are considering what they can stop paying for elsewhere so they can shift funds to OER. And they're also identifying what it will take to sustain the initiative, including maintaining infrastructure, providing professional development for professors and updating existing OER materials. Tweaking existing materials will also help sustain the initiative because it takes less time than creating new material.

"For scalability's sake and for greater impact, you just need more people adopting, and you can't have everyone building all the time," Quarles said. 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.