The shift to online learning has challenged instructors to create courses that are as engaging online as they are in person. As many faculty prepare for online learning again this fall, open educational resources (OER) can be part of the solution to help students stay safe and be successful.
OER are free and openly licensed online teaching and learning materials that support instructors and students no matter the delivery method. Unlike traditional publisher resources offered through bookstores that are copyrighted and highly restrictive in terms of sharing, OER allow educators and students to use, customize and share content with minimal restrictions, promoting the concept that high-quality educational materials should be available to everyone.
As colleges plan for the fall term, safety, cost and flexibility for students should be key considerations. And they all apply to learning materials.
Here are five reasons schools should make use of open educational resources:
1. OER not only lower costs but also promote health and safety. A 2018 large-scale study conducted by Florida Virtual Campus found that 36% of students earned a poor grade and 23% dropped a course just because they were unable to afford the required textbook. Because of these cost barriers, many students borrow textbooks and other learning materials from classmates and campus libraries instead of buying them. With the COVID-19 pandemic, borrowing is no longer a safe option. According to a study from the Journal of Hospital Infection, the novel coronavirus can live on inanimate surfaces for up to nine days.
At Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., where I work as a scholarly communications librarian, we are imposing a 72-hour quarantine period on all print materials lent to patrons between each use this fall semester. Sadly, we recognize that for many of our students, not having access to a required book or resource for 72 hours will determine whether or not they are prepared to participate in classroom discussions, study for exams or complete assignments in a timely manner. Whether on campus or at home, using course materials that are openly licensed levels the playing field and allows all students free, immediate and perpetual access so they can prioritize both their coursework and their safety.
2. OER saves students money. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused America’s largest economic recession since 2008. As of May 2020, more than twice as many young adults ages 16-24 were unemployed as workers 35 and older, according to Pew Research. Many of today’s college students are feeling the effects of the pandemic on both their parents’ employment and finances and on their own campus or summer jobs.
In addition to a volatile economic climate, the cost of textbooks is frequently a barrier to higher education, as noted above. The College Board recommends students at a private four-year college budget $1,240 per year for textbooks and supplies. That’s a significant out-of-pocket cost that students have to quickly come up with if they don’t want to fall behind in their courses. Unable to come up with that cash, students and their families will often use a credit card to pay for books, adding to looming student debt. Moreover, a 2013 report co-authored by the NAACP and Dēmos highlights that Black families are far more likely to carry more credit card debt than white families as a result of paying for college expenses for their children, leading to greater inequities in higher education.
OER, on the other hand, save students an average of $100 per course. Since faculty at Roger Williams University initially supported OER in 2016, the university has saved 2,255 students a total of $225,500 in textbook costs. OER ensure free, first-day, perpetual access to required learning materials and help eliminate barriers to higher education that have become more insurmountable in the COVID-19 economy.
3. OER support culturally relevant learning and social justice efforts. Unlike copyrighted material, OER’s open licensing can help enable the diversification of voices represented in curricular materials. Faculty can adapt materials to reflect a variety of perspectives and backgrounds—including those that traditional textbooks don’t always incorporate. OER can even engage students in revising or remixing the content to better reflect their own lived experiences and to see their communities represented in their learning materials. Students can create OER to educate their communities on important social justice issues like Black Lives Matter and how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color.
At Roger Williams, we have a support program called SOAR (Strive Overcome Achieve Rise) for first-year students who are the first in their families to go to college (so-called “first-gen”), the majority of whom are students of color. As a mentor in this program last year, I often heard students expressing the frustration and challenge of code switching, the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation, and being unable to authentically express themselves on a college campus. I’ll be working with the program coordinator to have this year’s SOAR cohort revise an existing OER College Success textbook to add their own voice and experiences.
4. OER are flexible. Times are uncertain, and students may need to withdraw from a course or drop out of school for financial or health reasons or because of caretaking responsibilities. With this in mind, it’s important to ensure that students can access their learning materials both now and later. The licensing structures of OER ensure that students don’t have to buy or rent the textbook again if they leave school and re-enroll in the future, and they’ll always have access to the latest version of learning materials. Many majors require sequenced courses (i.e. Biology I & II), and having the ability to hold onto those foundational texts is essential.
5. OER put students at the center. My colleague at Roger Williams, Heather Miceli, uses OER to engage and instill confidence in her general education science students. Each semester, Miceli’s students research and build upon inherited openly licensed websites from semesters past that are used as the textbooks for her science courses. These websites serve as core learning materials and allow students to continuously update and add to versions created by students in prior semesters. Miceli’s students love that what they are learning will have an impact beyond one semester. Creating their own openly licensed materials allows students to focus on timely topics in science that interest them, including climate change and vaccines, and they learn how to critically analyze information. These students leave the course understanding that authority is constructed and contextual: Experts aren’t the only ones who can develop teaching materials.
This fall, more than ever, institutions and educators should consider OER to prioritize the health and safety, quality and cultural relevance of their students’ learning—and encourage students to remain engaged and energized, no matter where they are learning from.
Lindsey Gumb is an assistant professor and the scholarly communications librarian at Roger Williams University, where she has been leading OER adoption, revision and creation since 2016. She co-chairs the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative Steering Committee and is Fellow for Open Education at the New England Board of Higher Education.