Expensive Textbooks Are Still A Problem. Will Higher Quality OER Help?

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Expensive Textbooks Are Still A Problem. Will Higher Quality OER Help?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Apr 19, 2022

Expensive Textbooks Are Still A Problem. Will Higher Quality OER Help?

High textbook costs continue to prove a barrier to college for some students, with some studies showing that many students skip textbook purchases even if they worry it’ll harm their grades because of the price tag.

These days low-cost add-ons to freely available, openly licensed alternatives known as Open Educational Resources, or OER, are getting a boost as a potential solution. Last week, for example, Lumen Learning, a company that sells OER-based courseware, announced it received a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will help Lumen bring together the company’s three separate platforms for humanities, professional development and online homework management, executives from the company say. Officials plan to make an OER-based Statistics 101 course available by 2023.

The company is among courseware providers that argue that OER can be a tool in making higher education more equitable, by making sure that economically disadvantaged students have the materials to succeed in courses like statistics that serve as gateways to lucrative professions.

In 2020, Lumen acquired Faculty Guild, a coaching company for instructors, now called Lumen Circles. The purchase has enabled Lumen to be particularly sensitive to designing for the adjunct experience, which has an outsized impact on the student populations they’re focused on, Lumen CEO Kim Thanos says.

According to its executives, that puts the company at odds with the rest of the market, which Lumen argues is moving towards using more automation that pulls teachers out of the experience with students.

“We’re really running counter to that by trying to embed the relationship between the faculty member and the students more deeply,” says David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen. “A lot of the things that are happening in the platform and features are things to connect students to faculty, so that they can have different kinds of conversations.”

Meanwhile, some OER offerings have lacked bells and whistles that improve student experience, which some professors want, says Niraj Kaji, CEO of Akademos, an online bookstore platform. But if companies like Lumen can successfully provide access to additional content that's high quality and free or low cost it will certainly reduce inequity, Kaji indicated.

How Is It Used In Classrooms?

Cost savings are not the only benefit to OER, according to proponents. They argue that the open format also gives faculty the tools to make their courses more responsive to student needs.

A new report released this week from SRI Education and Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit network that works with community colleges across the country, relates that faculty who use OER report that it has already improved student engagement.

“The picture we’re seeing is encouraging,” Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, says.

The new study reports that faculty and staff across the country who are implementing OER have seen an increase in students’ sense of ownership and belonging in the course. "In particular, moving away from published textbooks and curriculum materials enabled some teachers to 'slow down' their pacing, emphasize deeper exploration of topics and create space for student voices and agency," the report concludes.

Most important, the nonprofit says, is the framework for “open and culturally responsive practice” that SRI Education developed as best practice for OER. But it's early and educators are not fully implementing that yet, and faculty reports that they’re held back by a lack of administrative support and funding, lack of flexibility in course learning goals, and lack of alignment with tenure requirements, officials from the group say.

There’s more information coming.

Achieving the Dream also announced that it has received an $800,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation to study, along with SRI Education and the Tennessee Board of Regents, how OER grantees use it in the classroom in Tennessee.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify SRI Education's role.

Correction: An OER definition and company-related descriptions were updated.

Daniel Mollenkamp is a business reporter at EdSurge. Reach him at daniel@edsurge.com.

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