New study finds OER courses and degrees improve student retention and completion, faculty engagement, and result in cost savings for students

A new study released October 12 by Achieving the Dream that examined implementation of ATD’s Open Education Resources (OER) Degree Initiative found significant benefits to instruction and student learning experiences as well as savings for students who used OER. Students who use OER find them to be accessible, relevant, and engaging. Over 60 percent of students reported that the overall quality of their learning experience in an OER course was higher in comparison to a typical, non-OER course.

“The study indicates that, based on two years of implementation across scores of colleges, OER can be an important tool in helping more students—and particularly low-income and underrepresented students---afford college, engage actively in their learning, persist in their studies, and ultimately complete,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, Achieving the Dream president and CEO. “Data show that even using the most conservative estimates, cost savings are significant and that OER content plays a role in helping strengthen instruction and learning across not just a few courses but entire degree pathways.”

Though creating OER courses and degrees is time consuming, instructors in several colleges said they had made changes in instruction as a result of working with OER materials. Few instructors made changes to their pedagogical practices specific to OER, but use of these materials allowed them to align materials better with their learning goals. Instructors already using student-centered and hands-on learning strategies said that the OER materials helped what they were already doing. Several instructors also reported that students were more engaged with OER materials compared to textbooks because they are better tailored to good pedagogy, reading materials are more relevant and interesting, and students can be more involved in the construction of the learning experience.

The study also found that students saved between $66 and $121 per course. The lower number is based on a more detailed calculation for determining savings that takes into account students’ typical purchasing behavior. That amounts to, at minimum, $6.5 million net savings to students across 32 institutions in just two years. Most importantly, the study revealed that low-income students are using these resources to cover college tuition, personal expenses like rent and child care, learning materials, and courses that can help them stay in school. About half of Pell Grant recipients (48 percent) and more than half of underrepresented minorities (52 percent) reported that OER courses will have a significant impact on their ability to afford college, compared to 41 percent for other students.

The study, which is the first to examine the overall direct costs to institutions such as instructional time, developing efficient and collaborative institutional structures, and administrative coordination for supporting broad expansion of OER and OER degree pathways across an institution, indicates that, on average, the direct cost for implementing OER degrees is roughly $500,000 per institution over two years based on detailed cost data collected from five of the partner institutions.

The new research—conducted by SRI International and rpk GROUP—is the second in a series of studies on OER implementation released by ATD, which is working with 38 community colleges in 13 states to support deeper implementation and sustainability of OER across degree pathways that ATD will make available to other colleges nationwide. Key findings include:

Expansion of OER Courses
ATD’s OER Degree Initiative has spurred significant expansion of OER courses and enrollments at participating colleges. Nearly 3,000 sections of 385 courses were offered between fall of 2016 and spring of 2018 with a significant increase from 2016 in which just 13 OER courses were offered. Colleges saw a tenfold growth in students enrolled in OER courses with 37,398 students enrolled in 2017, up from 3,404 students in 2016 and enrollment more than doubled from spring 2017 (9,882) to fall 2017 (23,765).

Cost savings to students
Cost savings to students have been calculated more realistically, and OER courses and degree programs can play a significant role in addressing the rising cost of college for students, particularly low-income students enrolled at community colleges. Given that the cost of traditional textbooks can be burdensome, accounting for up to 80 percent of the cost of college attendance for Pell or other grant aid recipients, OER has the potential to make college significantly more affordable.

Savings from OER courses can help students with financial challenges that might interfere with their ability to continue and succeed in their program of study. In some cases, students were able to direct savings to other college expenses. Half of students in the survey reported that they would use their savings to cover college tuition and/or fees. Other common uses included covering personal expenses (48 percent), purchasing materials or supplies for other courses (43 percent), and taking additional courses (28 percent). Equally as important, given recent research on the impact of personal living expenses on a student’s ability to persist is the use of savings for expenses outside of college. Students explained that they “feel better” about taking classes now that they are able to spend less money on them, and more money on other necessities, like food, gas, and rent.

Student perceptions—and awareness—of OER
Students find OER materials more relevant, easier to navigate, and better aligned with learning objectives than traditional textbooks, but they are often not aware of the available of OER courses and degree programs, suggesting that those who can most benefit may not be taking full advantage. While 6 in 10 students report access to technology and/or the internet as positively influencing their ability to complete course work, fewer than 10 percent reported this as a challenge with OER materials. Students  noted that materials are available without delay and that the online format offers greater flexibility and transportability. Overall, students gave OER very positive ratings for quality and student engagement, and the vast majority said they wish to take additional OER courses and would recommend them to friends. But student awareness of OER courses and especially degree pathways was low. A substantial share of students learned that their courses were OER after enrolling and relatively few students heard about these courses from other students or from the college website prior to enrolling.

Cost to institutions
Costs for implementing OER are significant but not unsurmountable. The cost of developing an OER course averaged $11,700 (salary and benefits) at the five colleges that were involved in a detailed analysis to determine the cost of OER courses during the first year of the grant. Courses developed by teams of instructors would seem to offer an opportunity to save time and expense by dividing up course development activities. However, courses developed in teams were more than twice as expensive to create than those developed independently ($18,200 vs. $8,900). Analyses of instructors’ course development activities shows that courses took about 172 hours, on average, to develop. Sixty percent of course development time was spent finding and assessing OER quality (20 percent) and creating or revising content (40 percent). Teams spent more time creating and revising content than individual course developers (46 percent vs. 35 percent) and spent less time on course design/redesign, but otherwise their activities were similar. The impact of OER courses on colleges’ bookstore revenue stream was very small in Year 2, averaging less than 2 percent of the typical commission/profit (or an average loss of $11,200 per institution). The overall impact on institution budgets is expected to remain very small because bookstore revenue streams typically contribute less than 1 percent of total institution revenue.

Institutional Strategies for Implementation
College officials say that OER supports their priorities of reducing costs, bolstering equity and completion, and speeding time to degree, the report notes. Meanwhile, leaders from ATD report that colleges are using a broad range of strategies to build support for OER on campus, free faculty time, and establish a culture that supports OER implementation. Institutions are using resources from the OER initiative to incentivize faculty to develop OER courses and degree pathways and to expand the role of librarians and technologists to support faculty.

New Services for Colleges to Expand OER
Drawing from its expertise in supporting colleges in the initiative, ATD has established services to help assessing colleges’ capacity to implement OER degree pathways, strengthen Faculty Development Centers to build supports for faculty and staff and increase internal expertise in OER course development, provide coaching and coordinate and share proven practices for implementing and sustaining OER. The organization is working with college leaders to develop greater understanding of the benefits of OER and how to adjust institutional policies and practices to incorporate OER into their strategic planning.

The report was developed by SRI International and the rpk Group, and is based on: 2,441 student surveys administered across 12 sites and site visits at 11 colleges; section-level data collected from 32 sites detailing the number of students who enrolled in and completed OER degree courses; student-level data collected from 11 sites looking at the impact of access to OER courses on student enrollment, retention, and achievement; site- visit interviews with 51 administrators, 25 faculty members, and 68 students; and cost data collected from 32 sites on institution-wide enrollment and OER offerings, bookstore revenue, textbook sales, OER fees, and cost of attendance as well as information on the costs associated with developing OER courses and an OER pathway collected from five “cost partners.

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