The OER Movement Needs a Change

By | September 9, 2022

This post was contributed by Dylan DeLoe, Library and Learning Support Assistant, Blue Mountain Community College.

In a few stunning reports recently published by Open Oregon Educational Resources, open educational resources (OER) advocates have seen just how far their work has gone, saving Oregon students, without exaggeration, millions of dollars on college textbooks. It is cause for celebration for all those who have put in the time, effort, and heart to make their projects a reality, as well as those willing to adopt materials and realize the student cost savings. (Report links: Six Years of Community College Cost Savings: Impact of statewide funding for textbook affordability and Two Year Followup: Course material costs for four-year degrees at Oregon’s universities.)

However, the effects of these huge strides are counteracted by blind spots in the broader OER movement. Some have persisted from the beginning, others are the growing pains of a maturing affordability movement that must advance beyond its foundational ideas in order to achieve its foundational principles.

To start, the OER movement still requires awareness efforts. Although it has become a global sharing movement, from a student perspective it is difficult to see the dent that’s been made so far by committed educators, because still so few are using openly licensed materials. Whether this is the barrier of adoption difficulties, or lack of trust in the quality of materials, or just a lack of awareness generally, OER-friendly educators, librarians, and their support people must continue the work of ambassadorship. Students as well deserve to know what OER are and how they can help keep costs down for themselves and their peers. Adopting an “outside game-inside game” approach to advocacy will help move things forward. The “outside game” is the vocal advocacy, even real social pressure, from students, student governments, and those that care about them; and the “inside game” is the professional development and support already on offer. In my view, the OER movement on the whole is exceptional about the inside game, but must make more stakeholders aware of OER to fuel the outside game.

Another effort that is beginning in earnest here in Oregon is the diversification of OER language offerings. Even in some of the most rural campuses in Oregon, Black, brown, and indigenous families have now grown to rival their white counterparts in size. Education and by extension the OER movement must continue efforts of true inclusion by adopting materials that use students’ native languages. The surge of Spanish speakers in Oregon has not been ignored by the statewide OER program, and the current projects to translate materials can and should set precedent for the many other languages that encompass the Oregon experience, whether that is Umatilla or Vietnamese or any language. Through these efforts, Oregon’s colleges and universities can truly become world-class institutions in affordability, in addition to their quality, attracting world-class talent to the state. That can only happen if diverse groups of people can access those affordable materials.

Much of the movement’s grant funding and therefore design support has focused on general education courses in order to affect the most students. This is a sound strategy, because all students will have to fill those prerequisites before advancing onto higher level degrees. However, this has left students with a cliff jump in costs before moving into those more advanced degree paths where suddenly, textbooks that may have been $25-$50 in an algebra course (made to be $0 by OER efforts, not an insignificant savings) becomes several hundreds of dollars more per term for more specialized textbooks in critical fields like health care and education, for example. In a lot of cases, the more advanced the degree, the more expensive the books and the more total books required. This is exacerbated by lack of OER support for upper-division courses in our universities. Perhaps a new way to look at the OER movement is to also dedicate resources to support student equity and entry into these especially critical and advanced fields, which may differ by geographical region and/or grantor interests.

As can be seen in recent data reports, which have a treasure trove of detailed information, OER are paying off for students. When it is abstracted, it is clear to see the benefit of all the hard work put in over the years. However, many students are left out, and many more will continue to be if the movement does not expand its identity. Textbooks are not the only expense required to participate fully in college courses, and that is especially true of CTE degrees and trades. A certificate degree pathway like welding, for example, doesn’t have many textbooks. If, however, a welding course gets the “no-cost” designation as it pertains to textbooks, how confusing might that be to a student who looks at the syllabus and sees hundreds of dollars’ worth of other materials (like coveralls, boots, welding cap, etc.) that they often must procure without the help of a campus bookstore? The logic follows for agriculture, diesel technology, and more. In Oregon specifically, this gap is widest on rural campuses and those costs are borne by rural students who are underrepresented and underserved. A more comprehensive affordability movement must be one that considers tradespeople.

The difficulty of including affordability measures besides openly licensing modules and textbooks means that some of the other vital organs on the college campus be engaged in the movement, like bookstores and administrators. Faculty are by far most engaged in this work, and the progress that has been made thus far is working, without a doubt. In order to make sure no student falls through the cracks though, far more people must be involved. OER ambassadors must be bold about their asks of administrations and boards, their course material affordability plans, and the standards they hold for course-marking and the people they work closest with.

Within those partnerships, some gains have already been won on some campuses. The OER movement, at least here in Oregon, has successfully woven course-marking into the fold as a commonly discussed method of saving students money. While cost of courses is not the only factor in a course registration decision, having a price displayed next to a course is important, and informed students can save money and budget accordingly. While course-marking has necessarily included faculty cooperation, those efforts are led by other staff on campus, which is a good thing overall. The state of Oregon passed HB 2919, which set a target for on-time course material adoption and reporting to facilitate no-cost and low-cost designations at the point of registration; a good step forward.

However, the way it is implemented currently is clunky and the subject of a lot of discussion because the registration software and course material purchasing software do not “communicate” with one another, requiring manual data entry. As a result, many campuses are not reaching the level of compliance required by the state, let alone a level of compliance that would help every student equitably. To solve both issues (burdensome manual entry and compliance) requires a technology solution. While it doesn’t rule out a third-party contract that takes years to acquire and several more to complete, and using college resources for the profit of a company that may not even reside in Oregon, Oregon’s colleges and universities could use it as a learning opportunity for computer and technology students. Contract it to a university program. You can’t get much more user-centered than by having knowledgeable users design and code the interface itself. In addition, the days of arbitrary no-cost and low-cost designations would be over, since, with automation, an exact price range could be displayed at the time of registration. (“’No-cost’ is arbitrary?” Until compliance is up to one hundred percent and other course materials are taken into consideration, yes, it is.)

Some of these ideas may turn out to not be the way forward. However, it is crucial to understand that the way the system works currently is inherently inequitable, and it must move forward into equity. It is important that education and the OER movement realize that students do not get a say in what materials are used to instruct them. Not in how they are created, or shared, if they are shared at all, what form they are presented in, etc. And rightfully so, some might say. They are in fact not the experts in the room, for the time being at least. But then colleges require students to shoulder the burden of the costs of all those decisions anyway. Some materials are covered, some have a chance to be licensed and shared openly, but others aren’t. This isn’t democratic, and it sure isn’t equitable. A revitalized and refocused OER movement is needed. A new path is needed to truly begin to fulfill the promise of education.