Changing the Game: How OERs Are Reshaping Higher Education

Recently, the University of Maryland University College announced that this academic year, undergraduate students incurred no textbook fees, and that next year, graduate students wouldn’t either. The institution touted this as a big win for students, helping to cut costs and rein in tuition. The cost benefits of a textbook-free university experience seem obvious, but what does it really mean for your institution?

The Current State of the System

In the modern world of the university, just a few publishers have dominated curriculum: Wiley, Pearson, Macmillan and Prentice Hall. These publishers have put out enormous amounts of curriculum, at a high price. Universities had to buy full curricula (at full price, of course) for use in their courses.

This system had some benefits; instructors had their course materials provided to them, and there was consistency across campuses because all were using the same curricula.

The drawbacks, however, were clear. The system is expensive; according to research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook costs have risen 1,041 percent since 1977 – over three times the rate of inflation.

Not only is this system expensive, it is inefficient and does not necessarily foster high-quality teaching. Curricula are designed to appeal to the widest number of students possible, resulting in a less comprehensive, less high-quality experience. And of course, by boxing colleges and universities into using the same curriculum building blocks, some argue that the system has stifled faculty creativity.

A Solution Emerges

Open Educational Resources (OERs) offer a solution. These are free resources, ranging from articles to videos to more, all publicly available via the Internet. Creative Commons and MERLOT both offer free educational resources in a variety of media, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provides significant funding for the creation and distribution of OERs. MIT’s OpenCourseWare project is credited as one of the first projects designed to give access to OERs. Other free educational opportunities, such as MOOCs and even Khan Academy, soon followed.

A few things needed to happen to make OERs a viable educational resource: first, the Internet needed to become ubiquitous enough that it could reasonably be expected that students would have access to these materials. That obviously has occurred!

More critical even than availability, however, was legitimacy. In October 2015, the Department of Education announced its #GoOpen campaign to encourage educators to use openly licensed materials. As part of this campaign, the DOE is requiring “all copyrightable intellectual property created with Department grant funds to have an open license.” That means that everyone worldwide will have access to any materials created with Department of Education funding…meaning almost all materials.

While the thought of this material being widely available excites me, even better is the next stipulation from the DOE: any time an educator substantially improves a material, it must be re-licensed and made available to the public. Iterations of material will be consistently released, designed for different courses or different audiences in mind. Essentially, we are now crowdsourcing educational materials. The ivory tower is becoming a paved road with no speed limits.

A Customized Learning Experience

While much of the news about OERs has focused on the cost savings, I actually think the real value is far greater. Now, colleges and universities will not need to use pre-developed curriculum. Instead, they can develop courses that reflect their own brand, vision and values. These customized courses shift the focus from the development of content to the delivery of content – instructors literally have the world at their fingertips. It is now up to them to curate, design and deliver that content in a meaningful, engaging way. Faculty will no longer be facilitators (or at least, not just facilitators); instead they will become curators of a vast quantity of information, choosing those resources that best fit their vision.

New Models Emerge

While OERs will have a significant impact on all classrooms, they also are fostering the development of new types of learning experiences. Competency-based education (CBE), for example, would almost be impossible without OERs. CBE is, by its nature, flexible and personalized. The educational experience must adapt to the life experiences each student brings. This is difficult to do with an unwieldy curriculum designed to fit the largest number of people. But with OERs, which have almost limitless amounts of content and the ability to be modified quickly, CBE becomes a reality. Western Governors University, for example, is staking its future on CBE. It says that by using CBE, students can finish faster, and for less money. OERs form the basis of this curriculum, allowing the university to customize content quickly and inexpensively.

Online learning as a whole also is positively affected by the use of OERs. A traditional classroom can consist of a professor lecturing and then sending students off to do work on their own, with no visibility into how that work gets accomplished. I well remember sitting in a giant lecture hall, never engaging with the professor, only demonstrating my knowledge through multiple-choice tests. Online student engagement is much more predicated on visual confirmation of student learning, such as discussion forums, group work and student interaction within class. It is the concept of “showing your work” writ large. OERs, and the flexibility they bring, allow faculty to craft experiences that are better suited for online learning, with frequent check-in points and the ability to modify materials as needed to ensure learning is acquired.

Implementing Best Practices

This is not to say using OERs is easy. Valuable, yes, but not easy. The sheer amount of information out there can be daunting and hard to sift through – when my wife and I were discussing buying a car, we visited numerous sites and read tons of reviews before we even took a test drive. And that was after we knew generally what we wanted! The Internet is a vast and wonderful place, but it’s easy to get lost without a guide.

And once faculty find information to use, they have to verify that it is worthwhile, accurate, and up to date. Then the media have to be edited to fit the format faculty want. While some will have the skills to do so, others will not.

That’s why I recommend institutions that decide to pursue OERs develop a central owner of the process. This can be an in-house department, such as information technologists, your library or even a center for online learning. Or, institutions can choose to outsource to a partner. Regardless of how institutions choose to implement this technology, there are a few best practices to follow:

Verify quality. I recommend developing a rubric to assess quality and ensure that all materials meet that rubric.

Build in time. Developing courses that rely on OERs requires more upfront investment of time and resources than using publisher curricula. This needs to be taken into account when planning the implementation.

Plan updates. The upfront time investment is worth it in part because institutions do not have to reinvent the wheel, or with only minimal changes. That does not mean they never need to be revisited, however. Plan a schedule for updating curricula; as a general rule of thumb, I recommend revisiting every 18 months. This depends, of course, on the type of material being taught. A technology field should be revisited more frequently, since the information in the field is so dynamic. Art History 101, however, probably does not need as much attention.

Incorporate feedback. Listen to what students and faculty have to say about the courses they are taking and teaching, and implement that feedback. One of the best parts about OERs is the ability to quickly modify and improve programs to better reflect your institution, so take advantage of that.

UMUC is projecting cost savings in the millions for its 80,000 students. The College Board estimates the average undergraduate student spends $1,200 annually on textbooks; with more than 20 million undergraduate students in the United States, eliminating the cost of textbooks could result in savings of $2.4 billion. Clearly, OERs could have a dramatic effect on the economy. The bottom line is, OERs provide a solution to bring down the cost of education without sacrificing quality. While it does require some time investment upfront, the phenomenon is here to stay. Is your institution ready?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: