38 Community Colleges Share What It Takes to Launch an OER Degree Program

Digital Learning

38 Community Colleges Share What It Takes to Launch an OER Degree Program

By Sydney Johnson     Jun 22, 2017

38 Community Colleges Share What It Takes to Launch an OER Degree Program

The college affordability crisis has gained much attention in recent years, yet prices continue to climb. Tuition increased 89 percent from 2002 to 2012, and textbook prices—which cost anywhere from $600 to $1300 today—rose 82 percent over the same period, according to U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The prices keep many students, particularly those from low-income families, from completing college. And that’s been the driver behind nonprofit Achieving the Dream’s (ATD) OER Degree Initiative, where 38 U.S. community colleges are creating full degree programs that utilize open educational resources (OER) from start to finish. The program, which kicked off in 2016, shared its first set of findings today about what faculty are learning it takes to create an OER degree.

“OER can be an essential pillar of the community college student success agenda,” says Karen Stout, president and CEO of ATD. “It has the potential to trigger changes in teaching and learning and help students complete their courses and degrees.”

There will be at least 53 degree pathways offered by the 38 schools. In this past spring semester, the ATD study shows students on average have saved about $134, or 5 to 22 percent of what they were paying, per course. The goal is to drastically bump those numbers up, Stout says, by the time full majors are slated to be complete in fall 2018.

Choosing the right major

Each community college in the initiative is able to choose which major pathways will become an OER degree and how they plan to achieve that. For Montgomery College in Maryland, the strategy has been to start with general education courses that apply to multiple majors, and work with department faculty to build the degree pathways from there. The college is creating its OER degree for a general studies major, the largest at the institution with 9,000 students.

“We picked general studies because many of those courses are also GE’s, and that will benefit a larger number of students,” says Michael Mills, vice president at Montgomery College. “We are hoping to use those courses as a foundation to build on other degrees.”

Mills says his team is working with faculty from other departments, like English, Psychology and Communications, to make OER degrees for those majors by building upon the courses the school developed for general studies. He points out too that existing OER materials are not readily available for every major, another reason why the college decided to start more broadly.

Richard Sebastian, director of the OER Degree Initiative, explains that many other colleges in the program, which include Alamo Community College, Bronx Community College and Santa Ana College, also chose general-ed majors. “Broad degrees are good for transferring and getting into the workforce,” he says. “We want to make pathways where students could easily switch if they want to.”

Finding the good stuff—and support

The largest obstacle faculty reported around setting up OER content and degrees was the time and resources required to find and vet content. According to the report 63 percent of instructors said “developing a course with OER takes at least one and a half times as much time as a traditional course.”

Meanwhile quality of OER materials was also the most important criteria when choosing OER products, over both cost and editability. Still, only about half of instructors, according to the report, had assistance from instructional technologists available while developing courses. Those who did “were most likely to experience changes in their teaching.”

“One of the lessons we are learning is engaging faculty that have some previous experience teaching online or more digitally literate is important to get some early engagement with OER,” Stout says.

In addition to strong technical support for faculty, Stout adds that one of the most important factors to getting the degree initiatives off the ground has been getting buy-in from college leadership. “The colleges that are moving fast with OER adoption and with the best success are ones that have strong leadership,” she says.

Gathering momentum from top to bottom

Every college in the initiative was either familiar with or had existing OER initiatives on campus before receiving the grant, making the cohort an outlier compared to institutions nation-wide; just 10 percent of all postsecondary faculty use OER for supplementary purposes, the report states.

And these schools have another leg up to other colleges that may be starting from scratch: The initiative awards each institution on average $100,000 to launch their programs, plus technical assistance from OER company Lumen Learning.

But Sebastian hopes upcoming reports (which will detail cost and academic outcomes more specifically) will “lower the bar” for other institutions curious about adopting OER but lacking major funds and support.

Already the movement is catching on, he states. Sebastian points to New York state—where families earning up to $125,000 bear no tuition costs to attend the state’s public higher education system—as an example. That’s because Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan included $8 million for open educational resources for SUNY and CUNY, both of which have institutions participating in ATD’s initiative.

“That [$8 billion] was a direct result of those institutions’ work on this,” says Sebastian. “That is something we want to happen beyond the outcomes of these degree programs; we see awareness and policy implications, and New York shows this.”

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