Largest-ever study of impact of Open Educational Resources in college reveals benefits of introducing OER courses on a broad scale

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Community college students taking multiple OER courses earned more credits and similar grades than students who took no OER courses and reported high engagement with course materials; effort saved students $10.7 million and was cost-effective for colleges

Washington, D.C., Feb. 20, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — A comprehensive study examining the impact of Achieving the Dream’s Open Educational Resources (OER) Degree Initiative reveals that community colleges that introduced OER courses across degree programs saw an explosion of OER courses on campus. The three-year initiative enabled 38 colleges in 13 states to offer 6,600 OER course sections over two and a half years, reaching nearly 160,000 students, the study said. Approximately 2,000 instructors participated in the development and delivery of these courses, substantially expanding the number of faculty with OER experience at participating colleges. Nearly 600 courses were redesigned, contributing to the availability of OER content.

The study—conducted by SRI Education and rpk GROUP and released at Achieving the Dream’s 2020 DREAM conference here today—found that students enrolled in OER courses earned more credits than non-participating peers and that the effort was cost-effective not just for students but for institutions. Students at the participating colleges saved $10.7 million on the cost of learning materials. As courses became established, institutions were in position to recover their costs or even, in some instances, generate income from the effort as more students signed up for the OER courses.

“The Initiative aimed to increase college affordability and student success by catalyzing an institutional commitment to OER,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. “The effort made OER not the responsibility of individual faculty but a campus-wide responsibility. The research shows that OER can be a key factor in student success, a crucial element in teaching and learning that can encourage more students to make more progress toward degrees and graduate. What’s particularly exciting is that now we know for sure that colleges can gain academic and financial benefits for students and recoup their initial investments over a relatively short time.”

“While education research yields mixed or negative results, this study saw mostly positive effects,” said Rebecca Griffiths, principal education researcher at SRI education and the lead investigator on this study. “What was most striking was that students gained significant benefit from cumulative exposure to multiple OER courses than one-off OER courses. The study also provides a more exact picture of the cost-benefit trade-off for institutions. We have a much higher level of confidence that the savings are real and that OER is financially a good investment for institutions.”

Funding for the initiative was provided by support from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ascendium Education Group, and the Speedwell and Shelter Hill Foundations.

Academic Benefits

The academic impact analysis, conducted by SRI, was based on results from 11 institutions that were selected as “research partners” at the start of the initiative in 2016. The analysis found that students who took multiple OER courses on average earned more college credits over time than otherwise similar students who took no OER courses. Overall, credit accumulation did not vary significantly for underserved students versus other students. Students who took OER courses had similar cumulative GPAs as other students, on average, according to the report.

”Increasing course accumulation is crucially important at community colleges, as studies reveal that students who have earned credit for more than 15 courses are more likely to persist in academic programs and graduate,” notes SRI’s Rebecca Griffiths. She stressed, however, that the study was not designed to determine whether increases in course attainment was caused by participation in the OER courses and this will need to be a topic for further study.

SRI also surveyed 300 instructors in 2016 and 900 instructors in 2018 to understand their background and experiences with OER and 2,400 students in 2017 to gain their perspectives and experiences in OER courses. Researchers conducted site visits at ten colleges to gain further insight from both groups.

In both surveys and focus groups, students mostly reported positive experiences in OER courses, the study said. Most students found OER materials accessible and well-aligned to learning objectives. Meanwhile, instructors reported that OER affected the way they presented and used materials in class, increased the relevance of those materials, and influenced their pedagogical beliefs overall. Instructors were more likely to report that OER influenced the relevance and use of instructional materials in their courses than their pedagogical strategies. Instructors were cautious in their assessments about the extent to which use of OER increased student engagement, preparation, and achievement in their courses. Forty-three percent of instructors thought their OER programs would “definitely” be sustained, and another 48 percent thought these programs may be sustained. Eighty-three percent said they would not return to using traditional materials in their courses.

Will OER Degree Programs Take Hold?

The OER courses that were created across institutions were fairly evenly divided among a broad range of degrees, including: Business and Administration; Computer and Information Systems; Health and STEM systems; Liberal Arts, General Studies, Humanities and History; Language and Literature; Social Sciences and Psychology, and other fields. OER course development was primarily focused on converting introductory or gateway courses to OER, with 91 percent of instructors indicating they were teaching introductory and/or gateway level courses in the 2018 instructor survey.

The report does not state definitively whether completely aligning OER courses along a degree pathway will take hold. “The courses were still being implemented through the life of the grant,” said Richard Sebastian, director of Open and Digital Learning at Achieving the Dream. “Students could not take enough courses in the programs at the time of the research to be able to determine the likely success of the OER degree pathways on the campuses,”

But the report noted the importance of establishing broad-scale efforts to enable students to earn degrees in OER courses. “The concept of an OER degree pathway sends a clear signal that cross-unit coordination is needed across academic departments, advising, the registrar, IT, instructional design, the library, and the bookstore,” the report said. “Elevating OER into a pathway raises the likelihood of a coherent student experience supported by a coordinated and sustainable set of activities.”

Cost Savings and the Cost-Benefit Tradeoff

Research conducted by rpk GROUP indicated that the initiative saved students, on average, $65 per course on instructional materials, factoring in actual student purchasing patterns. Student savings totaled about $10.7 million across all participating colleges, money that students said they would use to cover other educational or personal expenses.

In surveys, 41 percent of respondents said OER courses would have a significant positive impact on their ability to afford college. More than half (53 percent) of students said they had not purchased required materials for a course at least once, and the most common reason was cost. The share of students reporting financial strain due to textbook costs was higher for Pell students and underrepresented minorities. On the other hand, relatively few students reported that they had withdrawn from a class or stopped taking courses for a semester or more due to costs (12% and 16%, respectively), the report said.

Researchers also conducted a cost-benefit analysis of OER implementation at five “cost partner” institutions and estimated that the institutions would recover their investments in OER or even generate income from the effort. While implementation costs at institutions ranged from $300,000 to $1 million, colleges spent on average $576,000, two-thirds of which was used to pay faculty to develop courses and one-third of which was used for general program support. The research reveals that the average cost of providing OER degree courses ($70 per student) declined rapidly as enrollment in redesigned OER courses increased.

“When the impacts across all five cost partner colleges are taken into account, estimates suggest an average of $1.03 in gross revenue was generated for every dollar spent (program and additional delivery costs)—a modest 3 percent institutional return on investment that reflects an average net financial benefit of $38,000,” the study says.

Courses developed and certified as OER are able to be freely shared with other institutions. Many of these courses will be added to Achieving the Dream’s OER course library and made available to the public.

Moving forward

“To move OER forward, institutions need to intentionally integrate this OER degree work into their institutional improvement efforts and organizational strategies,” said Achieving the Dream’s Dr. Karen A. Stout. “To make this happen, Achieving the Dream is supporting expanding OER within institutions as part of its institutional improvement model and offering additional services to help institutions bolster sustainability of OER course development and faculty support.”

Based on instructor surveys and focus groups, the report recommends that institutions:

Make OER adoption a strategic institutional initiative and connect OER degrees with strategic goals with high level administrative support.

Ensure faculty receive learning opportunities and supports, including OER training and course development supports to enhance the instructor experience and improve course quality, and opportunities for collaboration with colleagues can also build morale.

Address logistical and cultural barriers to course sharing across colleges.

Communicate OER options strategically to increase student awareness of OER course options and degrees to students they most wish to reach. Additionally, Achieving the Dream will announce a new grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to investigate whether participation in OER courses led to an increase in course attainment at OER Degree Initiative colleges.

Copies of the report are available at

Participating colleges

Colleges involved in the academic or cost impact studies included Alamo Community College, Austin Community College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, Central Virginia Community College, Forsyth Tech Community College, Herkimer Community College, Monroe Community College, Montgomery College, Pierce College, and Santa Ana Community College.


ABOUT ACHIEVING THE DREAM Achieving the Dream (ATD) leads a growing network of 277 community colleges committed to helping their students, particularly low-income students and students of color, achieve their goals for academic success, personal growth, and economic opportunity. ATD is making progress in closing academic achievement gaps and accelerating student success through a unique change process that builds each college’s institutional capacities in seven essential areas. ATD, along with 75 experienced coaches and advisors, works closely with Network colleges in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

SRI Education, a division of SRI International, is tackling the most complex issues in education to identify trends, understand outcomes, ad guide policy and practice. We work with federal and state agencies, school districts, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and businesses to provide research-based solutions to challenges posed by rapid social, technological and economic change. SRI International is a nonprofit research institute whose innovations have created new industries, extraordinary marketplace value, and lasting benefits to society.

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