The future of open educational resources


Saying that it’s time for open educational resources (OER) is almost a truism in higher education. The percentage of faculty across all sectors of U.S. higher education who say they use OER for their introductory classes increased from 6% in 2017 to 22% in 2022.

At the recent AACC Annual, multiple sessions focused on OER, and speakers in other sessions referred to OER as easily as guided pathways and strategic planning. This publication last year featured an article entitled Time for OER.

OERs – freely accessible, openly licensed learning materials that teachers and learners can copy, share and improve – have long helped remove financial barriers for students by offering free or low-cost alternatives to traditional textbooks. At the 2018 Open Education conference, it was announced that OER had saved students over the past decade a collective $1 billion. Beyond this jaw-dropping number, every dollar that a student does not spend with a commercial publisher located outside their community is a dollar that they can spend in their local community.

Editor’s note: The Instructional Technology Council continues its series of articles focusing on the anticipated impact of distance learning over the next 10 years.

Growing federal, state support

Federal and state investments in OER recognize its potential to address affordability. In 2021, California allocated $115 million for a statewide Zero Textbook Cost grant program in the California Community Colleges. In a few years, students at every college in the country’s largest higher education system will be able to complete multiple programs without having to purchase instructional materials.

The federal government has appropriated $47 million since 2018 for the Open Textbook Pilot program, which supports higher education institutions to develop and use of OER to achieve student savings.

Commercial textbook publishers seem to have concluded that resistance is futile. They now include in their marketing materials claims that OER is included in their subscription packages. Purveyors of off-the-shelf skills courses utilize existing OER to add to their content.

If OER seems to be winning the battle for affordability, what does the future hold?

Enrollment management

Colleges across the country identify OER sections in their class schedules, allowing students to easily search for classes in which they can afford to succeed. Once OER sections are identified in the scheduling database, the college can track enrollments, compare registration rates and disaggregate success rates by population. All this makes OER a useful tool for enrollment management and marketing to students looking for reduced costs. Another sign of mainstreaming is that OER is becoming a common item on job descriptions, especially for positions in libraries, centers for teaching and learning, and distance education teams.

Equitable outcomes

An oft-cited study at the University of Georgia found that grades for all students improve when OER was used instead of commercial textbooks. Improvements were greater for Pell Grant-eligible, non-white and part-time students. This evidence that OER helps outcomes for traditionally underserved students is being taken to the next level by faculty who use the openly licensed nature of OER to adapt materials to reflect the lives of our students.

Culturally responsive pedagogy refers to teaching that promotes congruence between students’ cultures and teachers’ classroom practices, which increases student engagement, sense of belonging and ultimately success. A number of projects leverage OER to make teaching culturally responsive.

The Branch Ed equity rubric is a tool for teacher educators “to evaluate OER with the goal of increasing the number of high-quality, equity-oriented, and inclusive OER that represents communities of color.” The Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges created a rubric to provide a “process and review framework to evaluate existing open educational resources to ensure that … open educational resources are inclusive, diverse, equitable, and anti-racist (IDEA).” And the Open for Antiracism program supports faculty in California Community Colleges to change their teaching practices to be antiracist by using the affordances of OER and open pedagogy.

Collaborative teaching

Open pedagogy engages students as curators and co-creators of knowledge, inviting them to demonstrate their learning through projects that are situated, collaborative and renewable. This approach fosters collaborative and innovative communities of practice among educators.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellowship, led by Montgomery College (Maryland), supports faculty across more than a dozen institutions around the world in creating shared assignments that are openly licensed. A new partnership between the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, the Maricopa Community College District (Arizona) and College of the Canyons (California) supports faculty collaboration in adapting OERs from a top research institution for community college classrooms.

While meshing culturally responsive pedagogy and embracing open pedagogy are to be applauded, it should be acknowledged that prominent voices and leadership roles in OER have too rarely reflected the student body of U.S. higher education. There is a growing awareness of this in the Open Education community. An example response to this is the Community College Consortium for OER’s (CCCOER) Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (DEI) Summer Book Club, through which the intersections of OER and DEI are explored.

Open as a tool

The future of OER is that it will not be the next big thing, but rather that OER will be a common way for students to freely access information, a tool in the enrollment management toolkit, and a commitment to equitable outcomes and collaborative teaching.

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James Glapa-Grossklag is dean of educational technology, learning resources and online education at College of the Canyons (California).

Una Daly is director of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) at Open Education Global.