University of Georgia Kicks Fresh Courseware Pilot Into Gear

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Open educational resources (OER) have saved students at the University of Georgia (UGA) nearly $2 million in textbook costs alone over the past three years. Now, the school is taking its relationship with OpenStax—the nonprofit publisher of open source textbooks that contributed to most of those savings—to a new level, test driving next-generation adaptive courseware.

UGA first partnered with Rice University’s OpenStax to deliver content for introductory biology courses in 2013. According to C. Edward Watson, director of UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning, about a dozen faculty members who teach physiology, history, psychology and sociology have since adopted OpenStax for their courses, while faculty in education and theater use alternative OER platforms. Rather than roll out a broad campaign to promote OER on campus, the center is focused on working with individual faculty members who teach large enrollment courses, Watson says.

Approximately 20,000 students at UGA have racked up cost savings from OER. The school is just starting to think about ways to assess how those savings might affect student outcomes.

Not Just the Text

In spring 2016, UGA began testing protocols for OpenStax’ Concept Coach and will pilot the next version of the software through the spring of 2017.

“We didn’t agree to do the pilot in response to any great instructional challenge we face at UGA,” Watson says. “We saw promise in what the tool might offer as far as supporting students between the space when they do their reading and come to class.”

The Concept Coach Pilot Program is supported by grant money from the Next Generation Courseware Challenge. The free tool appears within the pages of OpenStax textbooks and is designed to enhance students’ long-term retention of course content. The tool prompts students to engage in “retrieval practice,” or self quizzes, first posing questions in short-answer form and then in multiple choice format. Instructors can exclude questions to ensure students aren’t quizzed on material that hasn’t been covered.

This coming academic year, UGA will perform efficacy studies to determine whether there is an impact on learning as well as faculty and student satisfaction with the product, Watson says.

So far, two faculty members at UGA are testing Concept Coach in their respective brick-and-mortar introductory sociology and biology courses. During the initial phase of the pilot, comprised of one section of sociology and two sections of biology, approximately 900 students participated in the trial.

James Coverdill, a professor of medical sociology, agreed to try out Concept Coach without having previous experience with OER because he was interested in teaching with alternative materials. After a semester of using the first version, Coverdill received varied feedback from students about the courseware.

“Students who have good discipline...and know how to study material said it annoyed them because it changed their study habits,” Coverdill says. “On the other side, some students found interaction with the software to be really helpful. They could read a section of the material, be quizzed on what they knew about it, and then move on...They said, hey, this is helpful because it nudges me to do what I need to.”

Coverdill estimates that OpenStax saved students in his single section of sociology about $15,000 in one semester and he terms himself an OER “supporter,” but he’s also wary of the potential for cost-cutting measures to undermine the quality of content.

“If I give my students a lesser book to save a few bucks in the short run...then I don’t know that that’s the right bargain to strike,” he says.

Coverdill says he struggled with the quality and limited number of questions provided by the early-stage courseware, but expects it to improve.

“The more people that jump in and use [OER], the better,” he says.

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