The use of open education resources (OER) — freely available course materials that educators can use, adapt and redistribute online at little or no cost to students — can reduce the expenses of books and supplies for students. But a national organization focused on helping community colleges advance equity and improve student success is studying if OER also can help to boost students’ learning experiences and improve teaching approaches.
Achieving the Dream (ATD) on Wednesday released a report that indicates some instructors at a select group of community colleges are taking OER to the next level by using it to increase “student-centered teaching” to make classes more collaborative, engaging and relevant. While many studies have found that OER can help students reduce their college costs, there have been few that examine the teaching and learning components of using OER.
“The study reveals that community college faculty are just beginning to build the foundations to take advantage of the full range of open and culturally relevant practice that make the adoption of OER a promising pathway to more equitable teaching and student outcomes,” ATD President and CEO Karen Stout said in the accompanying report. “We see evidence that adoption of those materials and practices has the potential to give students more sense of agency and ownership over their learning.”
ATD has focused on OER over the past several years, including running a program to accelerate the adoption of OER at community colleges. Those efforts have provided opportunities to study the benefits of OER and to explore its potential beyond just cost savings and access.
“We recognize that strategically implemented OER has a multiplier effect,” Stout said Tuesday during a Zoom conference call to discuss the report. “It can address not only affordability but also some less-obvious issues, like accelerating credit accumulation and reducing time to degree, decreasing debt and advancing equity through the rethinking of pedagogy and course design.”
The study, conducted by SRI Education and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is based on interviews with faculty and administrators, student focus groups and course observations at eight community colleges that were selected because they were using OER and committed to exploring new teaching and learning practices. ATD plans to release a guidebook this year to help faculty and other stakeholders use OER to improve teaching and learning.
ATD also announced Wednesday that it received an additional $800,000 grant from the foundation to partner with SRI and the Tennessee Board of Regents to study “open and culturally responsive teaching” of OER grantees.
Opportunities for change
The study found that students at the colleges using OER for culturally responsive practices, in general, felt they had more ownership over their learning — with some students saying it helped to motivate them in these courses. They also reported that they felt more connected to the course material because what they learned felt “relevant and applicable to the real world,” according to the report.
The collaborative and open culture of the classes also made the students, in general, feel comfortable and engaged, though the report noted that not all students felt as connected because of asynchronous learning due to the Covid pandemic.
The report also included observations about the instructors who use OER. For example, they give students some opportunity to select topics for assignments or in offering suggestions for course materials. And several instructors reported giving students a choice in selecting how they would show their learning.
The flexibility of OER allows instructors to include topics relevant to students, the report added. Instructors also bring in diverse perspectives not typically included in traditional textbooks. And OER has allowed instructors to develop a more collaborative learning environment by not only having students help in picking course material but also in working together on assignments.
Rebecca Griffiths, senior principal researcher at SRI Education, cited one teacher who said that using OER allowed her to “slow down” her course because she didn’t feel the need to march through the chapters of a textbook or publisher’s slides. It gave her a chance to take a step back and reflect on what was most important for her students to learn and to give students a chance to drive the classroom conversation.
But the report, which acknowledged that course design changes resulting from OER are in the very early stages, noted that instructors in the study still primarily used traditional lecture styles, and some of the changes instructors made based on students’ feedback weren’t related to deeper learning. For instance, instructors said they used the feedback more often to address student workload rather than changing the course content to improve student learning.
The report also observed some limitations of the study due to Covid. All the site visits to the participating colleges were done virtually, and most of the courses at the time were delivered remotely, so the research team couldn’t evaluate in-person instruction.
The study also found that challenges facing broader use of OER are ones common to many initiatives: top-level administrative support and funding.
“Leadership matters to adoption and scale. And that leadership shows through in strategy and in where resources are allocated,” Stout said.
Faculty currently using OER are typically doing it on their own, sans any systematic support from their college or professional development, she added.
Montgomery College in Maryland is one of the pioneers in using OER to advance learning. Five years ago, it started using OER mainly to help students save on book costs and to increase access, said Shinta Hernandez, founding dean of the college’s virtual campus, who participated in Tuesday’s Zoom call. But it soon started to explore how it could use OER to improve learning. It created two programs to see how it would work: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellowship and Social Justice Ambassadors.
The UN program has since its start five years ago expanded to nine colleges and universities around the world. Through the fellowships, faculty are paired with faculty from a partnering institution to create openly licensed, interdisciplinary assignments focused on making their students agents of change in their communities.
The Social Justice Ambassadors program started this spring. Faculty and students are paired to create or find open education resources, Hernandez said. It allows faculty to empower students to take ownership of their learning experience, and it provides an opportunity for faculty to revisit their teaching and find ways to transform it, she said.
In May the college plans to show the results — and hopefully expand the effort to other colleges across the country, Hernandez said.