The pandemic-induced shift to remote learning could have set the stage for mainstreaming Open Educational Resources (OER) in higher ed. After all, OER — materials that are freely available to use, reuse, adapt, and share — have a strong synergy with digital learning environments.
But here’s the rub. While OER awareness among faculty increased in 2019-20, adoption did not. This was the major finding of a study conducted by Bay View Analytics, which revealed that faculty awareness of OER increased steadily over five years. However, according to the study, 2019-20 was “the first time that growth in awareness was not coupled with growth in adoption.”
Making OER the norm in higher ed has been a decades-long struggle. A passionate open education advocate, David Wiley first coined the term ‘open content’ in 1998 and was a prominent figure in the OER movement. His TedxNYED talk about openness in education was an illustration of pure inspiration.
But years later, in 2016, a UNESCO report noted that, in spite of years of advocacy work, OER “still needs to be mainstreamed more integrally into educational policies and practices.” In 2019, Wiley officially called for a reset of the OER movement.
It seems that OER adoption has reached a crossroads. The dream of ubiquitous, system-wide use at the institutional level hasn’t materialized. At the same time, there’s an urgent need to deploy OER as an alternative to costly textbooks.
In the wake of a global health crisis that has pulled back the curtain on social inequalities, faculty and higher learning leaders are more cognizant than ever that the cost of education remains a blocker for many students — and those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds in particular.
Food prices and housing costs are on the rise, and traditional textbooks still carry a hefty price tag. In 2020, the average cost per student for a new hard copy textbook was $84. While the exponential increase in textbook costs has recently settled into a plateau, a US PIRG survey conducted in 2020 found that 65% of students reported skipping buying a textbook because of cost.
This financial burden is a vexing problem for students and institutions alike. When cash-strapped students skip out on course materials, it can affect their academic performance. A survey conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) found that 47% of students who skipped buying a textbook said that it negatively impacted their grades.
But OER can be a gamechanger for financially disadvantaged students. One study found that students using OER in 10 American colleges enrolled in more courses the following semester — a strong indicator of progress towards graduation. They also performed equally or better academically than those who took similar courses using traditional textbooks.
While some experts attribute better learning outcomes to an increase in overall engagement with OER materials, for others, it all comes back to cost: “It may not be that the OER materials are superior — rather it may be that when the class materials are free, students actually obtain and use them,” writes online education expert Ray Schroeder.
Given that OER carries so many benefits, higher learning leaders need to understand why instructor-driven adoption has flattened. Faculty have to expend a lot of effort finding and evaluating OER materials, which can be a big blocker. While there is a gap between awareness and adoption, the Bay View Analytics study did find that faculty who are aware of “institutional or system-level OER initiatives were three to four times as likely to adopt OER as those who were not aware.”
The key, then, is for higher learning institutions to streamline access to OER content and incentivize faculty to use these resources via a prominent, system-level initiative. One way to do this is through a Universal Learning solution.
This type of solution offers a wide range of digital content from thousands of publishers, including OER, via a single platform. Students enrolling in a course automatically gain access to the digital materials on day one of class. The financial benefits for students are clear: they can gain access to digital materials at no extra cost or a reduced cost.
Here’s a deeper dive into three ways higher learning leaders can bring OER to the mainstream via Universal Learning and a Learning Enablement platform:
Faculty can spend a substantial amount of time finding the right mix of OER and publisher-produced content from various sources. Fragmented content leads to a significant operational burden for faculty and administrators. Sourcing content and linking it within the learning management system can create a ton of manual work.
By integrating into the LMS, a Learning Enablement platform provides an easy way for the institution to centralize these resources and provide a single access point for faculty and students. Institutions can also save hundreds of hours in manual administrative overhead via the automation of activities related to evaluating content and integrating content within the learning management system (LMS).
The integration of OER into a Universal Learning solution and Learning Enablement platform sends a clear message to faculty that it is an accepted standard for educational materials.
Furthermore, the substantial process efficiencies of streamlining and automating the workflows associated with identifying, selecting, procuring, and distributing content can translate into cost avoidance savings that can reach $500,000 per year. If there is an incentive for institutions to incorporate OER via a Learning Enablement platform, they’re more likely to, in turn, create incentives for faculty to adopt them.
A Universal Learning solution, which promotes academic freedom, can also increase OER’s likelihood of user adoption. Academic freedom is a common barrier for rolling out solutions on campus. For example, solutions often only offer content from one publisher or a limited catalog of textbooks or may not include OER options. A flexible solution that gives faculty the freedom of choice over learning resources is critical.
With institutional-wide use of OER via a Universal Learning solution, higher education leaders can also nurture relationships with champions who can help build momentum and speak to the positive impacts of the solution to encourage adoption.
To improve student outcomes, higher learning leaders need to bridge the gap between students of different backgrounds. By reducing costs wherever possible, institutions can make access to education more equitable — and drive an increase in enrollments and completions. Through Universal Learning, higher learning leaders can allow more students to experience the financial benefits of accessing OER in higher ed.
Education is a serious financial investment for students. Digital learning enablement is making it easier to shoulder.
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