In just over a year, Massachusetts public colleges and universities have galvanized a statewide movement to adopt more comprehensive use of Open Educational Resources (OER). How did state and campus leaders achieve such momentum?
By way of background, OER includes teaching, learning and research materials in any medium—digital or otherwise—that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.
There had been prior nascent efforts to increase the utilization of OER in Massachusetts including: the launch of the Open Education Initiative at UMass Amherst, the MA #Go Open Project funded by a TAACCCT grant and the creation of a MA Community College OER Hub.
These initiatives served as watershed moments in the journey to begin to make more faculty, staff, administrators and students aware of the utility of OER as a learning approach and as an effective way of reducing rapidly rising textbook costs. For example, the efforts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have benefitted nearly 13,000 students and have resulted in $1.8 million in savings. The Go Open community college program involved 9,000 students and 115 faculty members resulting in savings of $1.2 million for students, and the launch of the MA Community College OER Hub brought a repository for newly created open educational resources.
However, these efforts were accelerated when the statewide Student Advisory Council (SAC) presented a resolution to the state Board of Higher Education (BHE) in April 2018 asking the board to recognize OER as an approach to generate textbook costs savings for students and calling on the state Department of Higher Education (DHE) to explore and identify opportunities for implementing OER on a broader scale. Further, SAC noted that it would continue its advocacy for and support of OER.
The equity angle
During this same timeframe, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos E. Santiago was nurturing the development of what is now known as the Equity Agenda for Massachusetts public higher education. The Equity Agenda, officially adopted by the BHE in December 2018, aims to significantly raise the enrollment, attainment and long-term success outcomes among underrepresented student populations.
The goals of OER to reduce student textbook costs align with the Equity Agenda to increase persistence and completion of underrepresented students by: having a positive impact on student learning, addressing increasing interest among key stakeholders (e.g., students, public higher education institutions and faculty), responding to rising costs since textbook costs have risen by 88% over the last decade (OER State Policy Playbook, 2018), and addressing increasing interest in the Legislature.
A Textbook Case of Unaffordability
In a Florida Virtual Campus Survey conducted in 2012 and again in 2016, 20,000 public students
were asked what the cost of required textbooks had caused them to do in their academic careers.
Here are some of the results:
• Not purchase the required textbook: Two out of three
• Not register for a specific course: One out of two
• Take fewer courses: One out of two
• Earn a poor grade: One out of three
• Drop a course: One out of four
• Fail a course: One out of five
This led the DHE to increase its involvement in OER beginning with awarding two direct OER Performance Incentive Fund (PIF) grants of $150,000 to the Massachusetts OER Collaborative, comprising UMass Amherst, Worcester State University, Northern Essex Community College and Holyoke Community College; and $100,000 to the Viking OER Textbook Affordability Initiative at Salem State University. In addition, two indirect OER PIF grants were distributed to Northern Essex Community College for its Competency-Based Pathways in Early Education for $198,414 and to Massasoit Community College for its Early College Strategies to Enhance Learning for $59,525.
In late fall 2018, Commissioner Santiago established an OER Working Group to convene, study, evaluate and make recommendations to him and the BHE that addressed:
- The need to identify lower-cost educational resources for students
- The BHE’s goals of increasing access and affordability, closing performance gaps and increasing completion
- The issue of addressing equity for underserved, low-income, and first-generation students, especially students of color
- Enhancing instructor effectiveness while lowering costs for students.
The OER Working Group convened in November 2018, co-chaired by Marilyn Billings, who heads the Office for Scholarly Research Communications at UMass Amherst, and Susan Tashjian, coordinator of instructional technology at Northern Essex Community College. The OER Working Group was staffed by Robert Awkward and the work overseen by Patricia A. Marshall, both at the DHE and both authors of this NEJHE piece. The OER Working Group consisted of 21 members representing all higher education segments and geographic locations in Massachusetts and included faculty, librarians, administrators, students and external representatives, including union, bookstore and employer reps.
First, a survey
To begin this initiative, the DHE partnered with the Massachusetts OER Collaborative to create and distribute a statewide OER survey to establish a baseline on OER utilization. The survey response rate was 100% and it provided very useful information on the state of OER in Massachusetts. The following are highlights from the 2018 OER Prevalence Survey:
- 71% of Massachusetts public higher education institutions had some level of OER activity
- Although there were higher and lower numbers of courses served, eleven to 20 was the most prevalent number of courses using OER, resulting in student savings of $10,000 to $100,000 for about half of the institutions (47%)
- English, Math and Biology were the highest enrolled courses and the courses with the most OER use
- Faculty select their textbook individually or as a common textbook
- Most prevalent deterrents to faculty adoption of OER included:
- Too hard to find what I need (25%)
- Not enough resources for my subject (19%)
- Not enough high-quality resources (17%).
The survey data was used not only to inform the work of the OER Working Group, but also to inform the Massachusetts OER Collaborative as it designed OER training for faculty across the state. Nearly 500 faculty attended five successful regional training sessions at UMass Amherst, Worcester State University, Northern Essex Community College, Roxbury Community College and Bridgewater State University.
After the kickoff meeting of the OER Working Group in November 2018, the work was divided into five subcommittees to fulfill the mission. The subcommittees included: Faculty Development, Infrastructure, Marketing Communications, Policy & Legislative, and Stakeholders. The subcommittees began meeting and working in December and met continuously until they submitted their subcommittee reports in April 2019.
Meanwhile, the Student Advisory Council continued its efforts to support and encourage greater utilization of OER across the state as it had promised, holding a Legislative Advocacy Day in January 2019, a Public Higher Education Advocacy Day in March 2019 and an OER Photo Campaign (during the international Open Education Week) in the spring of 2019.
By April 2019, the five subcommittees had completed their work and submitted their reports to create a draft full report, which was reviewed and revised by the OER Working Group. The draft full report was used to provide an update on OER to the BHE’s Academic Affairs Committee. In addition to sharing the research and findings with the committee, it contained time-sequenced recommendations.
The short-term recommendations called for adopting a statewide OER definition, designating a statewide coordinator, establishing a statewide advisory council, encouraging and supporting continued student advocacy of OER and identifying OER courses in course management systems
The mid-term recommendations included: providing OER faculty professional development, actively promoting the use of OER for graduate and continuing education and expanding a unified OER repository to make the discovery of local content easier.
In the long term, it called for increasing funding to address campus technology challenges and encouraging the consideration of OER in faculty tenure and promotion.
During the summer, DHE staff finalized the full report and sent it to public higher education presidents and chancellors to obtain their insight, ideas and perspective on the findings and recommendations, and how they will impact their campuses. The feedback received was incorporated into the final full report to the commissioner. After his review, the commissioner recommended the full report and a motion being submitted to the BHE’s Academic Affairs Committee to accept the final report and to implement the recommendations at its Oct. 15 meeting. After a useful and engaged discussion, including active participation by the two student members on the Academic Affairs Committee, the motion was approved unanimously. The ACC brought the final report and motion to the BHE on Oct. 22, where it was again approved unanimously, including active support by the student voting member of the BHE.
This OER initiative has been an exciting, multipronged effort that has actively engaged stakeholders from the grassroots and actively partnered with students. The utilization of a broad, diverse, representative working group to develop thoughtful and useful recommendations for BHE consideration and action was key to achieving useful and effective outcomes. Finally, the opportunity to coordinate these efforts with other campuses and with PIF grantees, and to work with OER advocacy groups and other states, has been rewarding to everyone involved. Nicole Allen, director of education for Scholarly Publishing Alliance Resource Coalition (SPARC), a national OER advocacy organization, noted that “Massachusetts is an exemplar for state policy action.”
Ultimately, the largest beneficiaries of this work will be the students of Massachusetts for whom reducing the cost of textbooks and other ancillary learning materials will significantly reduce student direct, out-of-pocket expenses.
In addition, the quality of student learning will also increase. The national student success initiative Achieving the Dream conducted a study comparing the use of OER to traditional textbooks at 32 community colleges in four states. According to the study, “more than 60 percent of students reported that the overall quality of their learning experience in an OER course was higher than in a typical non-OER course.” This is the power of collective action focused on a shared goal. The Massachusetts DHE is proud to be an active participant in this institutional change effort on behalf of the students at our public colleges and universities.
Patricia A. Marshall is deputy commissioner for academic affairs & student success at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Robert J. Awkward is director of learning outcomes assessment at the department. Stephanie Teixeira is former Massachusetts Student Advisory Council chair. Visit here to view the final OER report and recommendations.
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