Books or Bread? Not with OER Degree Programs

Books or Bread? Not with OER Degree Programs


The question, “Should students have to choose between food and textbooks?” has become a trope. The articles abound—from stories of student food pantries to chronic homelessness. According to a 2015 report led by Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Half of all community college students are struggling with food and/or housing insecurity.” Access to higher education is destroyed when the effects of poverty drag students out of the classroom. The need to eliminate the choice between food, gas, rent and textbooks brought a cohort of community colleges together this week to pilot a radical idea: degree paths without textbook costs.

Thirty-eight community colleges are participating in the Open Educational Resources Degree Initiative (OERDI)—a three-year program to develop “Z-Degrees,” or zero textbook cost degrees. Spearheaded by community college reform nonprofit Achieving the Dream, the initiative will provide the schools with $9.8 million total to design and implement OER degree programs in fields including business administration and computer science.

Participating colleges will receive benefits including implementation aid, research tracking and an active community of practice. All well and good, but what about community colleges that aren’t among the chosen 38? How can they reap the benefits of the initiative’s collective knowledge and create their own Z-Degree programs?

The initiative has an ambitious goal: pave the way to OER adoption for all. According to Lisa Petrides, CEO and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, “We’re at the moment when this work will shift into the mainstream… This will be the day higher ed reclaims the materials market.” At the initiative kickoff event this week, schools shared their successes and failures with OER so far, and their experiences have valuable lessons for others that want to follow in their footsteps.

Communicate With Students and Faculty

At this event flush with presidents and administrators, speakers and panelists could not stop talking about the need to bring faculty and students on board early and often. Linda Williams, a faculty member at Tidewater Community College, the first community college in the nation to implement a Z-Degree program, claimed, “Our project succeeded in large part because we are faculty driven and administration supported… Our goal was not to restrict or legislate - it went through the faculty.” A top-down approach to OER actually goes against the spirit of the Open movement in the first place.

The best way to convince faculty of the importance of this work, according to Cheryl Huff, a faculty member at Germanna Community College, “Is communication—talking to everyone at every level about how OER will benefit, not just students, but better, stronger programs across campus.” If “open” is about free and accessible exchanges of information, the spirit of open must permeate the process of its expansion. Because in the end, according to Petrides, “OER is a means to something; it isn't the end in itself. It is the pathway to greater change." This greater change is student success, perhaps by eliminating the choice between food and books.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

The initiative modeled a collaborative community of practice by bringing the schools together for three days of speakers and workshops. Huff claimed, “The first thing we all have to realize is that we're all coming in at different stages and places. So, don't believe you have to reinvent the wheel. You have to find partners.” She says to work with people who have already tried this because “Someone else has already made the mistakes and solved them.”

These 38 community colleges (listed in the press release) become the model partners. With these existing examples, Achieving the Dream President and CEO Karen Stout said, “This work is not about implementation, but about adoption.” These schools have offered themselves up as the pioneers of OER adoption - and, in the spirit of open, their implementation can be reproduced, lowering cost at each iteration of the work.

Search for Local Funding

The majority of the funding from the OERDI will go to replicable programs. With the precedent set by these 38 colleges, proposals to local philanthropic organizations could help fund a Z-Degree experiment. David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning says, “The goal with doing this at 38 schools is to make it available to 500.” Once colleges successfully implement OER degree programs, other schools should be able to mimic them for a fraction of the cost. They might consider looking to local community foundations for funding support.

So far in their very early stage, Z-Degrees have shocked students. Williams of Tidewater confirmed, "Students were astounded that we would care enough about their time and finances to make this Z-Degree program work." Wiley said it succinctly, “Because OER are free, there are really only three possibilities of research on student outcomes: Students can save a significant amount of money and learn less, learn the same or learn more.” If the research arising from this work continues to support these claims, perhaps the choice between food and textbooks will finally be one we no longer ask. Students might just pay less and learn more.

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