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
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 research and evaluation of ATD’s OER Degree Initiative provided encouraging evidence regarding the academic outcomes of students who enrolled in multiple OER courses, the economic impacts for both students and institutions, and the experiences of key stakeholders. Students benefitted from unrestricted access to course content and improved course experiences, in addition to saving money that could be used toward other educational or personal expenses.
Overall, the OER Degree Initiative offers an important demonstration of the opportunity, the task, and the challenges of a systemic approach to OER.Download the study
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, Ascendium, and the Speedwell and Shelter Hill Foundations.
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 that were developed and certified as OER will be made available through Lumen Library and by Achieving the Dream, which will share the courses with institutions who are part of their network.
Watch a recording of the March 5, 2020 webinar exploring the results of the OER Degree Initiative.
“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 will announce a new grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to support expanding OER within institutions as part of its institutional improvement model and will provide 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.
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.