In the following Q&A, NEBHE’s Fellow for Open Education Lindsey Gumb asks Thomas College Provost Thomas Edwards about the Waterville, Maine, college’s plans to use a new grant from the Davis Education Foundation. The college’s focus on melding access and affordability through OER (Open Educational Resources) is especially relevant in the current shift to online learning at many campuses.
Founded in 1894, Thomas College offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in programs ranging from business, entrepreneurship and technology, to education, criminal justice and psychology.
Six in 10 students at the Waterville, Maine-based institution are “first-generation” college-goers who come from modest means. Thomas is a pioneer in so-called “job guarantees,” in which the college will make payments on federally subsidized student loans or provide tuition-free evening graduate courses for students who are unemployed at six months after graduation. Recently, Thomas added to its “employability” menu a master’s degree in cybersecurity, a co-curricular transcript that allows students to flaunt their leadership development, community service, internship and job shadow experience, and even a golf-readiness program given the student body’s relatively humble roots and how much career networking occurs on the links. Thomas President Laurie Lachance served as a member of NEBHE’s Commission on Higher Education & Employability and as a panelist on NEBHE’s 2019 roundtable on “The Future of Higher Education and the Economy: Lessons Learned from the Last Recession.”
In January 2018, Thomas College received a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to redesign 30 courses over three years to help save students money on textbook costs—a well-documented and significant barrier to student success. To illustrate, a 2018 survey of Florida’s higher education institutions shows that 64% of students aren’t purchasing the required textbook for their courses because of the high cost, 43% are taking fewer courses, and 36% are earning a poor grade just because they were unable to afford the book. A 2018 study out of the University of Georgia by Colvard, Watson & Park additionally shows that OER goes beyond addressing affordability: OER enables increased learning and completion rates, while also addressing achievement gap concerns for historically underserved groups of students.
Here, Thomas Edwards, provost at Thomas College and member of NEBHE’s Open Education Advisory Committee, shares some insight into his institution’s progress with its Davis grant and how the results are increasing equitable attainment of a postsecondary education for Thomas students.
Gumb: The grant you received from the Davis Educational Foundation is helping Thomas College faculty convert 30 courses over three years using OER. What disciplines are represented in this mix? What does progress look like two years in?
Edwards: From the beginning, we recognized that there were two key goals of the Davis Educational Foundation grant. The first was student success, especially as it is tied to finances. We’ve been able to bring costs down dramatically for students—we had one course that went from a $253 textbook to no cost for students using OER. That’s a real savings for our students.
The second goal is pedagogical. Reworking a course to rely on OER is time-consuming but rewarding. It allows a faculty member to incorporate current materials and to design a course that mirrors the real-world environment: locating sources, analyzing data, communicating and working with real-time information.
To date, we’ve had faculty from across the disciplines participate: science, criminal justice, political science, education, economics, history, psychology, marketing, business finance and philosophy. We have been able to document thousands of dollars in savings to students. Students also report high satisfaction rates—91% indicate that they positively benefited from OER. Student performance as measured by grade distribution shows no statistically significant difference between OER and non-OER versions of the same course. It’s been a win-win across the board for students, faculty and the teaching and learning environment.
Gumb: Thomas College is regionally ranked #8 for social mobility by U.S News & World Report. How has OER played a role in positioning your institution for this achievement?
Edwards: We wanted to use OER to address both access and affordability. If a student can’t afford a book, if they add a course late, or if they have to wait until their financial aid comes in before they can purchase a text, they are already disadvantaged and potentially disengaged from a course. We don’t want them to fall behind.
We very intentionally focused the first courses that we redesigned on those entry-level courses that enroll higher numbers of students. We wanted to have an impact on student engagement and retention. Our success in social mobility is tied to our ability to help students make progress to their degrees.
We want students to be positioned for success. We want students and faculty to have the tools they need at their disposal from day one. That’s simply not the case when dealing with traditional texts. More than half of our students have reported that there have been times when they couldn’t afford the text. They also report that OER materials are more engaging than traditional textbooks. OER eliminates those barriers—motivational and financial. Students can focus on learning, faculty can focus on teaching … and the materials they need are right there for everyone to access.
Gumb: What kind of feedback have you received from your students?
Edwards: Students have embraced OER. Finances are one of the first things they notice. One student commented that “OER benefited my wallet.” But students also notice other aspects of course design. They comment that OER courses seem timelier and more relevant. They find OER courses to be more creative in presenting information. And here’s an interesting perspective: Students observe that because OER materials come from a variety of sources, they find less bias and subjectivity because the materials are more current and are updated more frequently. If we want our students to be information-literate, OER-based courses are one important way to get there.
Gumb: What has the faculty response looked like? Is participation mandatory, and if not, how are you incentivizing participation?
Edwards: Faculty response has also been very positive. Because we are talking about course redesign, we identified participation we wanted to encourage, but not mandate. We wanted to use the grant to demonstrate the benefits to both students and faculty and to encourage progress on both the financial and pedagogical fronts. The Davis Educational Foundation allowed us to provide an incentive through a stipend or a course release for faculty to work together on their redesign. Each semester, we have five slots open for faculty to propose a course. They work together as a cohort, sharing what works and what issues they are encountering.
Many people think that OER is about finding the right online version of a textbook, but it’s much more complex than that. The faculty workgroups spend their time discussing pedagogy and course design.
How do we encourage students to read critically? To engage? To interact? How do we structure assessment? What kinds of activities help build real learning? These are the conversations that bring other faculty into the mix, to encourage them to consider their own courses and how they might adapt. Our faculty report feeling more energized about their course revisions. They value the opportunity to work across disciplines and departments. And in the process, information and library services are integrated in more direct and meaningful ways with course design and delivery.
Gumb: OER are free for students, but they’re not free to create and maintain. How do you intend to address issues of sustainability when the grant money runs out?
Edwards: Sustainability is always a great question. We have engaged our librarian and Information Technology staff from the very beginning to work with the faculty, and they have now built up a great set of reference tools for anyone interested in adopting OER tools in their course design. We’ve involved our Faculty Development committee as well and highlighted at Faculty Senate meetings how OER can be effective for teaching and learning. We make the courses that have been redesigned available for others to adapt or adopt.
It’s ultimately about building into the campus culture a recognition that we need to continue to be conscious about the choices we make as a faculty and how those choices can impact student learning and student success.
Gumb: What advice do you have for senior leaders at independent institutions who might be just starting out with OER initiatives?
Edwards: Our focus from the very beginning was to be explicit about our goals: We wanted to define this opportunity as pedagogical as well as financial. We wanted to be clear that these concepts can and should go hand in hand.
Everyone across the campus can agree on the centrality of student success. Focus on success and focus on student learning. Use data effectively and make sure you can measure your success. We have had faculty at the front and center of the project design and it has worked extremely well. Faculty want their students to learn. OER can help.