Study finds open educational resources are cost-effective

The largest-ever study of the impact of open educational resources (OER) has found that free, digital learning materials save students money at a reasonable cost to colleges. SRI Education and rpk GROUP conducted a two-and-a-half-year study of 38 community colleges in 13 states that participated in a program called the OER Degree Initiative, led by Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit working for higher education reforms.

About 2,000 instructors chose to participate, developing courses that reached nearly 160,000 students.The study found that “OER implementation at scale saves cost for students, that it improved their learning experience and it’s cost-effective for institutions,” Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Positive reviews from students and faculty

Students at schools participating in the OER initiative paid at least $65 less per course on average, and 41 percent of students surveyed by SRI said OER courses would significantly affect their ability to afford college. The response was even more enthusiastic among Pell grant recipients and underrepresented minority students, highlighting the “equity dimension to this work,” said Rebecca J. Griffiths, principal education researcher at SRI Education. In addition to lowering barriers to student success, OER courses appeared to be more easily customizable and participatory, and surveyed students rated them highly.

From an institutional standpoint, the switch to an OER pathway cost each college approximately $70 per student enrolled in OER courses, when factoring in what they needed to pay for faculty to develop the courses and for general program support. The study found that these costs were recoverable, and some schools earned additional revenue when more students signed up for OER courses.

The transition away from traditional textbooks did, however, take professors twice as much work time to plan lessons. Even so, 83 percent of participating faculty said that, for courses they had already taught as OER, they would not return to traditional materials. To avoid overburdening individual professors, Stout recommends that colleges approach OER with a “well-orchestrated and coordinated institutional effort that’s strategic and scalable and sustainable.”

A look at inclusive access programs

Meanwhile, a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) looks at another textbook option: inclusive access programs, in which publishers make digital learning materials accessible on the first day of class and automatically tack a fee onto the tuition bills of all students enrolled in the course by the add/drop date. While advocates for inclusive access models say it can reduce costs and increase access to course materials, critics say it limits student choice without meaningfully reducing costs.

PIRG examined inclusive access contracts between textbook publishers and 31 institutions, finding that, where disclosed, discounts were approximately 20 to 25 percent. However, nearly half of the contracts had opaque discount structures, 40 percent limited colleges’ ability to publicize the programs, and more than half required quotas of enrolled students to qualify for discounts. According to critics like PIRG, inclusive access programs “only continue a long-standing textbook industry monopoly in which students have limited options and have to pay whatever price they’re given,” writes

Calling on institutions to pursue OERs instead, PIRG says that colleges and universities using inclusive access programs should at least pursue contracts that ask students if they want to opt in, detail price and discount structures, and remove student quotas.

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