Harper College, like so many other community colleges throughout our country, has taken bold steps to dramatically change the trajectory of student success rates. Investing in Open Education Resources (OERs) is a promising strategy we can implement to take student success to the next level while simultaneously fighting the disturbing trend of declining enrollment among our colleges.
It is not uncommon to see students decide not to enroll, withdraw from classes after enrollment, and fail to complete classes or programs because they simply do not have the funds to continue. Finances are among the most common reasons given by students who choose not enroll, re-enroll, withdraw, or fail to successfully complete their course studies. Investment in OER can alleviate these issues.
Harper College’s OER Initiative
Harper’s OER initiative began as a grassroots effort in which literally one faculty member, Dr. David Braunschweig, began leading the charge. He saw students struggling in the classroom and realized many did not have the resources to purchase the required textbooks. He began imbedding OER into his classes, one at a time, and found that success rates increased. In all, he created 15 OERs and co-authored an OER textbook for Harper’s Information Technology program. Use of OER in his classes resulted in a 23 percent increase in student success.
The college leveraged his enthusiasm and engaged a group of faculty, supported by Harper’s Academy for Teaching Excellence, and formed a community of practice, or CoP. This model provides space for a group of faculty to meet and try new pedagogical methods to improve student outcomes. The CoP began expanding the use of OER in their classrooms and facilitated a grant application with Rice University’s OpenStax program
Rice University’s OpenStax Program
OpenStax assisted Harper College in creating a three-option model for OER use — Adopt, Adapt, or Create. This is how faculty frame their approaches to OER.
- Adopt – refers to vetting and using an existing open educational resource for courses
- Adapt – refers to modifying an open education resource so that it better meets the course objectives
- Create – refers to the development of a unique open educational resource.
OpenStax also helped Harper define what OER means for the college, and more importantly for our students. We define it as no-cost or low-cost alternatives to textbooks. (For Harper, low-cost means $30 per class or less.)
At Harper College, this initiative has been incredibly successful because it was faculty led. Harper’s board of trustees wholeheartedly supported this OER initiative. We had previously set aside a reserve fund for student success strategies, which the administration uses to offer monetary grants to faculty to expand the use of OER as part of our student success strategies.
As trustees, it is important to measure new initiatives to ensure they are yielding results. Harper measures four areas: success rates, enrollment, course withdrawals, and course quality. Among our results:
- Success rates in sections with OER exceeded those with textbooks — they were higher by about 4 percent (74% after OER versus 70% prior to OER).
- Students in OER sections enrolled in more credit hours — nine credits with OER versus eight per student before OER. Some 877 students have been impacted, which translates into 877 more credit hours taken.
- Withdrawal rates are lower in OER sections by 0.3 percentage points (11.22% vs. 11.52%).
- Course quality was measured via a survey of students enrolled in OER sections. A majority of the students, 89.15 percent, noted that the quality of courses with OER were better or the same as those that used textbooks.
Student surveys also showed the following results:
- 93 percent rated the overall quality of the learning experience as the same as or higher than for non-OER courses.
- 57 percent applied the savings toward educational expenses.
- 26 percent took or will take additional courses.
- 16 percent worked fewer hours because of the cost savings.
Another important factor is, of course, cost:
- Before OER were implemented, the average cost of textbooks in those courses was $84.77.
- After OER usage, the cost to students was $0, meaning that all faculty who participated found high-quality materials that had no costs associated with them.
Thus far, the usage of OER has revealed that:
- More than 1,000 students have completed classes with no-cost materials.
- Courses that use OER include information technology, chemistry, early childhood education, math, psychology, sociology, and economics, demonstrating that OER materials can be applied to a wide range of classes.
Role of the Board in Bringing OER to Scale
The board’s role in an OER initiative is to ask relevant questions, monitor results, provide encouragement and needed resources to the college, and to consider whether OER is an initiative worthy of bringing to scale. At Harper College:
- The board allocated funds to the administration to try new things that would help with student success.
- Faculty applied for grants to adopt, adapt, or create OER.
- $27,000 in grant funding to faculty was allocated to a pilot, with impressive results.
- Students saved an estimated $75,000 in textbook costs in one semester alone as a result of this $27,000 grant. If these 36 course sections re-use these same OER, another $75,000 will be saved by the students in the following semester and each semester thereafter. If the $75,000 is compounded over 10 semesters, the savings from that initial $27,000 investment will be $750,000 for our students.
- We are now growing the program, with $150,000 in OER grant funding allocated this year by the Board to serve 5,000 students. More than one-third of our credit students will benefit.
- The goal is that this will result in approximately $450,000 in savings for students, which will grow exponentially as current classes continue to use OER and new courses begin using these no- or low-cost textbooks and materials. If we use these same OER resources for 10 semesters, the savings from that $150,000 investment will be $4.5 million more in our students’ pockets.
- If students and faculty lead an OER initiative, it is more likely to succeed than if it is a directive coming down from the board.
- Compensating faculty for their valuable time and expertise to develop OER material is a great way to incentivize an initiative.
- OER works best with course redesign. This means changing the flow and construction of the course to complement OER resources. This is true for online as well as blended and face to-face classes.
- Online homework resources offered by publishing companies are expensive and tied to specific books. Faculty sometimes rely on them to help with homework grading. Limiting the use of these tools can be challenging but should be considered because they are very expensive.
- Savings are one aspect of why OER is an important initiative — and students certainly save money. However, student success metrics are most important. Thus, boards must monitor and affirm that students in OER classes are persisting and completing at the same or better rate.
- OER resources are mainly online. Thus, accessibility needs must be considered. For students who have vision challenges, the way documents appear is important. For those with hearing challenges, online videos and recordings need to be captioned.
- Many Harper students in OER classes are still printing materials. They have access to 500 printed pages per semester as part of their activity fees. Some students are printing all materials, and those 500 pages go quickly. In addition, OER resources may print oddly on pages because of their formatting.
OER is catching fire. At a time when resources are dwindling, costs are rising, and enrollment is declining, this initiative can fuel further gains in student success while simultaneously thwarting enrollment declines in our colleges. A Congress session on OER including leaders from Harper College, South Florida State College, and the Pima Community College District was published as an “In the Know with ACCT” podcast episode in December. The podcast can be found at ACCT.org and via the Apple and Android podcast apps.
I encourage all trustees to ask questions about textbook costs and then provide support to faculty and administration. In my experience, the results have been amazing. In the experiences of many of our students, the results have been transformative.
William F. Kelley is a member of the ACCT Board of Directors, vice chair of the Harper College Board of Trustees, and managing partner at Kelley, Kelley & Kelley Attorneys at Law in Schaumburg, Illinois.