Understanding Open Educational Resources: An Interview with Marie Cini

By November 8, 2017 Q & A No Comments

Marie Cini, Provost Emeritus at University of Maryland University College, presented at our Connect Higher Education Summit this summer about how the institution effectively implemented open educational resources (OERs) to ensure quality and decrease costs for students. I sat down with her as she shared why the institution decided to implement OERs, what the benefits were and what changes she anticipates in the future.

First and foremost, let’s define OERs. What, exactly, are they?
Well, let me use the same definition the Hewlett Foundation does: They are teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others.

Basically, they are resources that already exist, and faculty can combine and repurpose them to meet the needs of their curriculum.

Why did UMUC decide to move to an OER model?
Most of the student population are first-generation college students. Many are parents, and they are often paying out of pocket, or through the use of Pell Grants or loans. At the same time, textbook costs have ballooned — the Government Accountability Office says that textbook costs increased 82 percent between 2002 and 2012. For comparison, overall consumer prices increased only 28 percent. To better serve the student population, we knew we had to control costs, and OERs helped us do that.

So, were you able to reduce costs?
I’m really proud to say that the answer is an unequivocal yes! In Fall 2016, more than $19 million total was saved in textbook fees by UMUC students.

Is there any cost to an institution for moving to an OER model?
While the cost savings to students are significant, the biggest cost center for institutions is in the development of OERs. Librarians, for example, are a huge asset in finding and curating content for courses. You’ll also want instructional designers to put the resources together, to make sure it all makes sense. That frees up faculty to customize their courses as needed and to focus on things like teaching and ensuring students really understand the material, not worrying about how to fit what they want to teach to the existing textbook.

In a world where basically all knowledge is accessible, how can we ensure students are using resources of quality?
It’s true that you can find just about anything on the internet, so I think the answer here is twofold. First, OERs need to be created out of curated sources. There are some great sites out there that peer-review content, so you know it’s not a video from the dark web or anything. And secondly, we need to teach our students overall critical thinking and information literacy skills, so they can evaluate the quality of sources for themselves and not just believe everything they read.

Will OERs change the role of faculty?
I think that there will increasingly be a need to unbundle the different skill sets. I can imagine a future where institutions hire different kinds of faculty — curriculum and assessment vs. teaching and mentoring vs. research. Maybe faculty pick two of those areas to focus on. Honestly, that’s what happens now; people focus on the things they’re good at and enjoy the most, and kind of let the other parts slide. This would just be a more formalized way of letting faculty thrive in their areas of specialty, while at the same time ensuring students were receiving an optimal educational experience.

How did the implementation go at UMUC? Were faculty onboard?
I think any time there’s a change, you’ll encounter some resistance. But UMUC is so student focused, and this provided such clear benefits to the student population that we were able to make the case really persuasively. And then once we started using OERs and faculty realized that building the content was not that difficult and that it gave them more freedom in what they were teaching, they embraced OERs really enthusiastically.

Besides reducing textbook costs, are there any other benefits of OERs?
This gives universities the freedom to develop programs that are more competency based and more customizable. Instead of having to follow a textbook, institutions can develop programs that meet the needs of their student population, whether that’s helping them complete degrees faster or focusing on some other aspect. And of course, by reducing the cost of textbooks, it frees students up to either spend that money on more classes (again reducing time to degree) or they can simply graduate with less debt.

Marie Cini is Provost Emeritus at University of Maryland University College. She is now Higher Ed Lead, Team IBM, SOC-Modernization project. View her presentation and see what other sessions were shared at the Connect Higher Education Summit here.

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: tzipper@learninghouse.com