Early Lessons Launching Open Education Resource Degrees in Community Colleges


SRI recently released our first report on the Open Education Resource (OER) Degree Initiative, an effort led by Achieving the Dream (ATD), a network of more than 200 community colleges, to boost college access and student success. The program supports the redesign of courses needed for a degree using OER materials in place of proprietary instructional materials. OER are teaching and learning materials that are freely available online and openly licensed, allowing both instructors and students to adapt and share the resources to better meet local educational needs. Research on the impacts of OER use on student outcomes has limitations but generally points in the direction of positive effects and student experiences.

The OER movement has been underway for nearly two decades, and thousands of individual faculty members have taken the initiative to convert their own courses to OER. The OER Degree Initiative, launched a year ago, aims to take these efforts to the next level by creating degree pathways composed entirely of OER courses, with the ultimate aim of reducing the financial burden that textbook purchases place on students and promoting improvements in curriculum and pedagogy.

SRI Education’s research so far has focused on the implementation process. Specifically:

  • What are the perspectives and experiences of participating instructors and other stakeholders?
  • What are some early lessons learned about what it takes to roll out an OER degree, and what are some key facilitators and barriers?
  • What observations can we make about factors necessary to sustain OER degree pathways over time?

SRI’s future research will focus on the academic and economic impacts of this model, examining the effects on student progress to degree and the cost effectiveness of this type of program.

A central premise of OER degrees is that a coordinated institutional approach to OER will have greater cumulative impact on student success than a smattering of unconnected OER courses offered by individual enterprising instructors. In other words, exposing students to multiple OER courses and integrating them with other components of their experience – from advising to course registration to articulation with four-year programs – will amplify the benefits.

Our research from interviews and an instructor survey provide some preliminary evidence in support of this theory, at least from the instructor perspective. For example, we heard from one program leader that OER degrees are an opportunity to put a strategic framework around existing grassroots activity. Survey data indicate that instructors who access course development support services are more likely to make significant changes to their teaching practices, and those who are satisfied with the training they receive for OER perceive lower barriers and are more likely to recommend OER to colleagues.

Furthermore, providing support for course development and training may help to alleviate the biggest obstacle to converting courses to OER — the time it takes for instructors to locate and vet appropriate instructional content. Nearly two thirds of instructors reported spending at least 1 ½ as much time developing an OER course as they would a traditional one, and over a third said it takes twice as much time or more.

The ATD grantees have made substantial progress in addressing the needs of instructors, as 70 percent report having participated in some form of training or professional development related to this initiative. Around half have taken advantage of supports such as instructional design on campus; however, more remains to be done. Most instructors have never received help from librarians, though these staff could be well positioned to support content discovery and license reviews. Many instructors still express a desire for stronger connections with peers, for example to share the burden of course development. We also heard that incentives are not always aligned with development of openly licensed courses; if an instructors’ primary motivation is to fill her sections in order to keep her position secure, she may not see the benefit of investing energy in developing a great course and making it available for others to teach.

Finally, a clear vision for how OER degrees can improve student success is important to sustaining momentum. For some colleges, the cost savings for students is the critical factor, and thus the way content is licensed is less important than that it is freely available. For others, the ability to adapt openly licensed content to fit the specific instructional needs of students and programs is paramount. It is natural that colleges should emphasize different aspects of open educational resources that address their particular goals. What is crucial is that participants on each campus share a sense of purpose, and that proponents make a clear case for why instructors should exert the extra effort and what benefits they can expect to see as a result.

ATD’s initiative involves 38 community colleges across the country and is supported by funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, the Shelter Hill Foundation, and the Speedwell Foundation.

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