Impacts of Open Educational Resources

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been trumpeting the use of Open Educational Resources (OERs) for years. For the most part, I promote OERs because they’re free for students and faculty to use. I work at a public institution that prides itself on being a pathway for first-generation college students and underserved students to get their undergraduate degree. Some of these students may have financial constraints that limit their ability to buy textbooks or other curricular materials that they need to be successful academically. When faculty adopt OERs in their classroom, they can provide some financial relief for these students.

On campus, I’ve been working with a group of faculty who are trying to raise awareness of OERs and promote more widespread use of OERs. Our efforts have mostly focused on the financial benefits of using OERs and how these can help students. For the most part, our efforts have not made much impact. Some of our faculty colleagues see OERs as being lower quality than the materials available from a publisher and worry of the academic impacts these may have on students in their classes. I try to explain that requiring a high quality, $200 book (or more) only benefits those students who can afford to purchase it. The others are probably trying to manage without it.

But I think I now have a new argument to make. In a recent issue of International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Colvard and Watson completed a large-scale study of 21,822 students enrolled in eight different courses over 13 semesters at the University of Georgia. In these classes, instructors chose to use OERs during some semester and non-OERs in others. The researchers examined student performance in the courses that used OERs and compared them to student performance in courses that used more traditional materials. Across the boards, students performed better in courses that used OERs. The researchers also disaggregated the data to examine how sub-groups of students performed in the classes. Summarizing their findings, Colvard and Watson write:

OER improve end-of-course grades and decrease DFW (D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades) rates for all students. They also improve course grades at greater rates and decrease DFW rates at greater rates for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education(pg. 262).

The conclusion of the paper, however, is the critical part that I plan to share with my colleagues.

“This research suggests OER is an equity strategy for higher education: providing all students with access to course materials on the first day of class serves to level the academic playing field in course settings. While additional disaggregated research is needed in a variety of postsecondary contexts such as community college, HBCU, and other higher education settings to increase the generalizability of this notion, this study provides an empirical foundation on which to begin to change the advocacy narrative supporting OER. A new opportunity appears to be present for institutions in higher education to consider how to leverage OER to address completion, quality, and affordability challenges, especially those institutions that have higher percentages of Pell eligible, underserved, and/or part-time students than the institution presented in this study” (pg. 273).

I’m fortunate to work at an institution where the vast majority of my colleagues are motivated to “do right” by their students. This research clearly shows that using OERs can benefit students, not only financially but academically as well.

Colvard, N.B & Watston, C.E. (2018) The impact of open educational resources on various student success metrics. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2), 262-275.


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