What makes a successful open initiative?

By | March 28, 2016

This post was contributed by Jen Klaudinyi and Rachel Bridgewater, Portland Community College faculty librarians. 

During the 2014-2015 academic year, as Portland Community College was forming our college OER Steering Committee and beginning to define a college-wide OER initiative, we found ourselves  asking a lot of questions about what kinds of things are likely to contribute to a successful initiative. Jen’s move from a smaller institution with a focused OER program to a larger institution without an existing initiative brought up questions about whether the same sorts of investments and priorities are likely to work across institution types and sizes. We wondered what impact funding had on success, how important a steering committee is, whether institutions of certain types and sizes were more successful, what kinds of leadership corresponded with greater success. With these questions in mind, we conducted a survey and interviews to see if we could detect patterns that would be useful for the OER community. Jen later presented our results at Open Ed in November 2015.

Our survey was publicized during fall 2015 on various listservs (including CCCOER, LIBOER, OTN, OPENNESS). We got responses from 30 institutions, all in the in the US, with more 2-year institutions responding than universities. As you read the numbers we present here, remember that this is a really small sample of results and take them with an appropriately-sized grain of salt. The results did include both big and small schools, as well as schools that have long been involved with OER and those just getting started.  In addition to the information we got from the survey, we conducted interviews with Kim Thanos, Lumen Learning; David Ernst, Open Textbook Library; Una Daly, Community College Consortium for OER; Amanda Coolidge, BCcampus;  Jeff Gallant & Lauren Fancher, Affordable Learning Georgia; and Nicole Finkbeiner, OpenStax.

Here’s what we learned:

Be small

In our survey, smaller institutions tended to view themselves as more successful than the larger institutions and were more likely to be tracking savings. 100% of the smallest institutions (under 3000 FTE) reported being successful and the percentage claiming success did not improve as the size increased. 100% of the schools in the two smallest categories were tracking savings compared with only 28% of the largest schools. Our interviewees also indicated that smaller institutions benefit from their relative flexibility. Openstax and Lumen both have data showing that smaller institutions have greater rates of adoption. So, perhaps being small helps contribute to having a successful initiative; unfortunately, if you happen to be starting an OER initiative at a larger institution that information is of limited utility!

Be goal-oriented

Many of our interviewees indicated that, in their opinion, committing to measurable goals is among the most important things to do when starting an initiative. Nicole Finkbeiner advises, “Write a strategic plan that includes metrics, and measure outcomes – not actions.”  Surveyed institutions with high self-reported success in their initiatives were much more likely to have defined goals for their programs  (76% vs. 31% of the less successful group). All the institutions that listed measurable goals were also tracking savings.

Keep track

Tracking savings, as we see above, goes hand-in-hand with setting measurable goals. All of the interviewees talked about tracking (especially savings) as critical. “Tracking is everything!” said Kim Thanos. Several interviewees pointed out that demonstrated savings can often lead to increased funding for an initiative. Tracking savings was also strongly correlated with success in our survey. Institutions that tracked savings were much more likely to describe their initiatives as success (84% vs. 31% of the less successful group) and were also more likely to compensate faculty and have a dedicated budget. Other kinds of tracking, such as completion, achievement, and persistence, are very rarely tracked though both interviewees and survey-takers commented that this data was needed.

Friends in high places

Support from administration was described as crucial by our interviewees and was strongly associated with all measures of success in our survey, with 100% of the most successful group reporting strong administrative support. The other “make or break” group is, of course, faculty. This didn’t emerge strongly in the survey but many of the interviewees talked about the importance of faculty buy-in and the need to preserve academic freedom. “The adoption of open resources absolutely has to be a choice. We can encourage faculty, but they need to choose,” said Una Daly.

Leaders and champions

Nearly all surveyed (83%) and interviewed described leadership on OER coming from dedicated champions at their institutions. “Find champions on your campus, and if they’re likeable charming people, put them out in front of others,” said Una Daly. However, institutions that described themselves as solely or largely relying on individual champions were less likely to report success; these champions can’t go it alone. Steering committees are one way that institutions can bolster these champions, but only 30% of the survey participants reported having steering committees. That said, those that did were slightly more likely to report success and savings. Some of the interviewees commented that steering committees can be helpful, but only if they are solution-oriented and don’t take on a gate-keeping role.

Few of those surveyed (20%) had any kind of release time or compensation for leaders and only 16% had dedicated OER positions. Those that did have these things were more likely to report success. This was one friction point where the data from our survey conflicted with what we heard from interviewees, many of whom talked positively about funding capacity building and OER leadership. “If the problem is how to create sustainable open education, what’s needed right now is investment in people,” said David Ernst.

Money matters

In our survey, perhaps the strongest predictor of high savings for students and of self-reported success was funding faculty to work on OER conversions, with 92% of the most successful programs providing funding and only 37% of the least successful programs doing so. Funding varied a lot – from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. Nearly all of the interviewees felt that some funding (though not necessarily much) was necessary to make open sustainable and successful. In response to a question about the feasibility of OER initiatives without funding, Kim Thanos replied, “The bigger question is – with 13 billion spent on textbooks per year, there’s no way to do this without some reallocation to sustain change.”

Getting over our fear of commitment

The patterns that emerged from our study were unsurprising: have measurable goals, track student savings and whatever other metrics are necessary to show your progress toward those measurable goals, find a way to fund the program (especially faculty), and get buy-in from administration and faculty.

While we weren’t surprised by the results, we were surprised that more institutions didn’t report that they are committing to these things. Why don’t more initiatives define measurable goals?  Are they afraid of setting a goal and missing it? There is a chicken or egg situation here, we feel. OER champions may be reluctant to articulate concrete goals for fear of not having the resources needed to meet those goals; but without clear goals, gaining those resources is challenging. Funding, as well as momentum and broad success, is less likely to come to initiatives with soft goals like “advocating” and more likely to come to those with clear, measurable goals that the campus community can rally behind.

We wonder: is going halfway enough, or does doing “open, sort of” actually detract from the success of the larger open movement? We challenge institutions to commit and pursue these cornerstones that lead to successful initiatives.


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