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OERs increase access, drop book expenses

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​At Tacoma Community College (TCC) in Washington, faculty and staff noticed a trend: fewer students were purchasing the required textbooks for classes.

Instead, students were checking out related materials from the library and trying to recreate information on their own. The students couldn’t afford the hefty textbook costs, and it was affecting classroom performance.

“It hurts their engagement in the classroom, it hurts their ability to stay in school and it leaves them at a bigger disadvantage than they are at already,” said Quill West, open educational resources (OER) project director at TCC.

The college, with the cooperation of faculty and students, made a move toward using OERs. The two-year project began in April 2012 and is supported by student technology fees. The goal was to embed OERs into the 10 classes with the highest enrollments and to save students $250,000.

A year later, 39 sections of 19 individual classes—from biology, to English, to computer courses—use digital materials rather than traditional textbooks. Faculty isn’t required to participate, but the number of teachers using OERs is growing. To date, the college has saved students $266,000.

Knocking down barriers

“OERs can really lower barriers for students, particularly at community colleges,” said Una Daly, community college outreach director for the Open Courseware Consortium, which is a collection of higher education institutions and organizations working together to create open courseware.

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It’s not just about cost, either. With OERs, there is more collaboration between students and faculty, Daly said. Teachers can modify material to meet students’ needs.

“Teachers are asking ‘How is the material working for you?’ That doesn’t usually happen with text books,” Daly said. “College students should help drive their own learning. They shouldn’t just receive and digest.”

There are multiple ways students can access material. At South Florida State College, physics and astronomy professor Erik Christensen makes textbooks available in four ways–students can view them online, download them as an e-publication, order the text directly from the publisher or print out material for a small fee.

“There are more options than with a regular book,” Christensen said.

Faculty flexibility

Using OERs offers faculty more freedom, as well, Christensen added. He’s able to modify the texts he adopts from sources such as OpenStax College, an initiative out of Rice University in Texas. He can change the order of chapters, delete chapters he doesn’t need and modify text to use terminology that’s familiar to his students.

“I have more authority and power over this than a regular textbook,” he said.

There is a time investment on the front end, according to Christensen, but once the text is set, “it’s less work in the long run.”

TCC students surveyed about courses with OERs said they saw “more passion in their teachers,” West said.

Adopt, adapt, create

There is plenty of material out there for instructors to adopt. Some states have even developed their own repositories. Open Course Library is managed by Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, and Orange Grove is Florida’s digital repository for instructional resources. 

Others choose to create their own material. The math department at Scottsdale Community College (SCC) in Arizona has basically become its own publishing house, said Donna Gaudet, a math instructor at the college.

“We have three active writing projects going on at all times,” Gaudet said.

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SCC has created full toolkits for students, with workbooks and worksheets, instructional videos and links to other resources for developmental math courses, such as basic arithmetic and introductory algebra. The material isn’t necessarily formatted in an striking way and it doesn’t contain colorful graphics, but “it’s the content we’re after,” according to Gaudet.

The process has department faculty members, including part-time instructors, collaborating in a way they hadn’t before. They edit together in large groups and have regular meetings about material content, which ensures that material doesn’t get stale.

SCC has licensed its material with Creative Commons, so other colleges can adopt and adapt them, as well.

Last semester, 1,000 students at SCC were surveyed about their experiences with OERs. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and students said the material supported what they were learning in the classroom. As an added benefit, using OERs has saved SCC students more than $180,000 in textbook costs.

The value of OERs

OER use is new enough that data on student performance are not readily available. Early evidence at SCC shows that students are doing just as well with digital material as with traditional textbooks. TCC has found the same thing.

TCC’s two-year OER project ends in 2014. West is looking at ways to institutionalize it and make it part of the budget. The college has become part of Project Kaleidoscope, which allows them to share the work of faculty and collaborate with other institutions, and helps the college with researching the effectiveness of its OER material.

Using OERs takes a high level of faculty commitment and support from administration, but the return on investment is high, according to Gaudet.

“If we’re saving students money and doing no harm, then that’s the track we’re going to take,” Gaudet said.

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