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Author: Rebecca J. Griffiths and Nancy L. Maron
The rising cost of higher education and resulting financial burden on students and families have attracted increasing attention. One area of concern is the cost of course materials, which—at $200 for some textbooks—can be prohibitive for students. At the same time, more educational material is freely available online than ever before.
Awareness of financial stress and the growth of alternatives are generating interest in finding ways to make instructional materials more affordable. Open educational resources (OERs) have emerged as a potential solution to the high prices of instructional materials.
We review the current state of OER adoption and barriers to adoption, evidence supporting use of OERs, research challenges, and demand drivers. Our key takeaways are the following:
Development of Open Educational Resources
What Are OERs?
OERs are online teaching, learning, and research resources released under open licenses that permit their free use and repurposing. They encompass a wide range of materials, from a course syllabus to a professor’s Power-Point slides, a video lecture, or an entire online course.
Advocates hope that educators will build courses around OERs in place of pricey publisher content, alleviating one component of the college affordability problem. But their aspirations go beyond making educational materials more accessible for students. Many seek to reshape the structures and value systems that underlie the creation and sharing of knowledge. The objective is to enable the “five Rs”: retention, reuse, revision, remixing, and redistribution of educational content (OpenContent.org/definition).
Many initiatives have been launched with public and philanthropic funding to create OERs, often led by faculty. Some projects aim to create original content, others to create tools and infrastructure to enable content contributions from volunteer authors. Finding the resources to sustain existing initiatives and launch new ones is a persistent challenge for the OER movement (Guthrie et al. 2008) as investors in educational technology put their resources into commercial (i.e., profit-yielding) rather than open access ventures.
Breadth of OER Content
OER efforts are not limited to the United States or college-level education. There have been extensive efforts internationally and in K–12 to advance OER development and adoption. We focus here on the OER landscape in US higher education.
Many OERs target foundational courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), such as gateway math, biology, chemistry, psychology, and computer science. In these and other areas, OER alternatives to commercial textbooks are much sparser at advanced levels. A white paper released by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (2013, p. 9) observed that “[OERs do] not yet include a full set of high-quality materials for everyday use by educators in the most widely taught K–12 and postsecondary subjects.”
Impetus for Openness: Cost and Quality of Education
Costs of Textbooks
According to the US Government Accountability Office (US GAO 2013), from 2002 to 2012 the costs of textbooks rose 82 percent, compared to 89 percent for college tuition and fees and 28 percent for consumer prices (see figure 1). Thus on an annual basis, new textbook prices rose at nearly three times the rate of inflation. This continues a long-term trend: analysis by the American Enterprise Institute found that textbook costs increased over 800 percent from 1978 to 2012, well above general price inflation (Perry 2012).
What does this mean for students? The College Board advises full-time undergraduate students to budget roughly $1,200 per year to cover textbook costs, or a third of the total cost of tuition for a community college and 13 percent of the average cost for an in-state public four-year university.
It appears that students actually spend substantially less than these estimates, as free or lower-cost options for accessing materials have proliferated. There are robust markets for rentals and used textbooks, and a rapidly growing share of students—estimated at about 25 percent in 2014—report illicit acquisition behaviors such as sharing digital copies and downloading materials from pirated websites. One analysis found that, after accounting for all the options for accessing textbooks and other teaching materials, students spend on average $600–700 per year, still a hefty portion of their financial resources (Hill 2015).
There are disturbing trends underlying these data, aside from students resorting to illegal behavior. Several studies indicate that many students forgo the purchase of required textbooks because of cost.
Factors Behind Textbook Prices
Why haven’t prices for academic publications declined, given the increase in competition from online sources of content?
The factors driving rising prices are too complex to go into here in detail, but we draw attention to two important ones. The first is the absence of direct price competition for any given academic resource. A textbook is typically available only from a single publisher (i.e., there is rarely the equivalent of a generic drug). Furthermore, courses are often built around a specific textbook, so there is understandable reluctance to switch to a different textbook. And acceptable substitutes, if they exist, may be in short supply, particularly in more specialized courses.
The second (related) factor interfering with healthy price competition is that the people who choose instructional resources for courses (faculty) are not the ones who have to pay for them (students). With different incentives or priorities, faculty members might be willing to accept a slightly less well aligned or familiar resource available at a lower price.
Evidence for the second argument is mixed: in a 2014 national survey of faculty, less than 3 percent cited cost as a top criterion for selecting educational resources (Allen and Seaman 2014). Proven efficacy, quality, and coverage were by far the most important selection criteria. On the other hand, a survey by the Independent College Bookstore Association (ICBA) found that faculty cited cost to students as the second most important factor for selecting instructional materials (Green 2016). We thus cannot say definitively what role cost plays, but it seems plausible that faculty members are less sensitive to or aware of price increases and less likely to optimize value for money than they would be if they were paying for materials such as textbooks.
Role of OERs
The OER movement aims to address the first of these factors by increasing the supply of viable substitutes that are freely accessible and cannot be used for commercial purposes. Efforts have focused on developing OER-oriented intellectual property policies, tools, and platforms, as well as original content—what movement leader David Wiley (2015) calls the “intellectual infrastructure of teaching and learning.”
In addition to low cost, advocates argue that OERs can improve the quality of instruction by prompting faculty members to rethink their pedagogical strategies and providing them with the flexible tools and resources to do so. As Lisa Petrides, founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, writes (Plotkin 2010, p. 1),
The real promise of [OERs] is not just the free high-quality learning materials and textbooks. It’s the process itself, how the materials are created, used, adapted, and improved, that creates a whole new set of possibilities.
The hope is that instructors will migrate from reliance on publishers’ materials toward dynamic communities of practice organized by, for, and with their peers.
A Snapshot of the OER Movement
In the late 1990s and early 2000s a number of OER initiatives were launched at universities with support from public agencies and private foundations, chief among these the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. These efforts generated openly available course syllabi, textbooks, math education materials, and platforms for user-generated content. Recognizing the challenge of locating and vetting OER content, the National Science Foundation also funded development of curated pathways to open instructional content on the Web.
In the years since, countless domain-specific online resources have been created and deposited either with major platforms or on university and college websites and repositories. OER enthusiast communities have formed along with major gatherings such as the OpenEd annual conference. More recently, OER proponents have introduced services to support successful OER adoption by universities and colleges.
International efforts have also played a major role. In the United Kingdom, substantial investments from the Higher Education Funding Council and the Joint Information Systems Committee funded a program to support both open content creation and technical infrastructure.2 In 2005 the OCW Consortium was launched to provide an international forum and community, and in 2007 an international convening aimed at promoting OERs resulted in the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, which was signed by thousands of supporters.3
State of Adoption
Yet for all the energy on the supply side of OERs, faculty have been rather slow to embrace these materials, especially as a primary instructional resource in place of commercial materials.
Lagging Adoption among Faculty
The 2014 national survey found that “between two-thirds and three-quarters of all faculty classified themselves as unaware on OER” (Allen and Seaman 2014, p. 2), although many faculty use OERs without being familiar with the term. Around 5 percent of faculty report regular use of OER material as their primary teaching resource, while just over 10 percent regularly use OERs for supplementary purposes (Allen and Seaman 2014, p. 37). Similarly, the ICBA survey found that 75 percent of faculty are either unaware of OERs or have never used or reviewed OER materials, but that 15 percent are actively using OERs in their courses (Green 2016).
In the K–12 sector, a 2013 review commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation found that only 10 percent of educators were using OERs as their primary teaching resource (BCG 2013).
This level of penetration seems consistent with the usage levels of major OER providers (e.g., MERLOT, NROC, Open Learning Initiative4), whose users mostly number in the tens of thousands per month.5 OpenStax CNX, which provides open textbooks for large-enrollment gateway courses, reports that in 2015 its content was used by 392,000 students in more than 2,500 courses in the United States; it estimated that its free textbooks saved students $39 million.6 These are healthy numbers, though still fairly small in relation to the 20 million students enrolled in some form of higher education in the United States and the estimated $6+ billion college textbook market.7
Perhaps in part due to slow uptake, central government funding for some major programs wound down: the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) transitioned to a private nonprofit and, in the United Kingdom, the national repository for open education content announced its impending “retirement” (Burke 2015).
Barriers to Adoption
What has held back uptake of OERs? The simplest explanation may be that they are not (yet) particularly well aligned with faculty priorities. According to the 2014 faculty survey, trusted quality, proven effectiveness, and coverage are the three most important factors, and ease of use also ranks quite high. Ease of adaptation and reduced cost—particular advantages of OERs—are lower priorities. In fact, a 2012 study found that over 90 percent of instructors who use OERs simply adopt them “as is” without adaptation (Hilton et al. 2012).
Time and Effort to Find and Assess Materials
When faculty are asked to cite the largest obstacles to OER adoption, time and effort are at the top of the list (Allen and Seaman 2014). Specifically, in the absence of a catalogue of available materials, efforts to locate, review, and incorporate OER materials into a course are a major undertaking. For those who carry heavy teaching course loads, receive last-minute teaching assignments, or are obliged to teach courses outside their core area of expertise, assembling a course using OERs could appear formidable. Without institutional policies providing release time from teaching and needed technical support for faculty, instructors bear the costs of transitioning to OERs, while it is primarily students who reap the benefits.
Copyright, Compatibility, and Coverage
Other factors may discourage faculty from using OERs. Confusion over copyright policies may deter instructors from adapting materials. Compatibility of online and offline resources and seamless integration with campus learning and authentication systems are also important needs, which OER providers may not be equipped to address. Finally, instructors want topic coverage, and commercial publishers have a very long head start in building comprehensive libraries of content.
Need for Evidence of Effectiveness
We frequently hear from faculty and administrators that evidence of effectiveness is a key factor for adoption. This is curious given that many widely used publishers’ materials, particularly online ones, are not supported by rigorous quantitative research showing that students who use them perform better. Case studies and correlational analyses that fall short of causal evidence are far more common.
It may be that faculty members have more confidence in publishers’ resources based on accumulated experience and comfort in numbers (“how could thousands of instructors be wrong?”). It is also likely that decisions are influenced by commercial publishers’ advertising and marketing efforts, which OER providers are unable to match.
Because the transition to OERs requires a substantial commitment of time and effort, it is understandable that instructors set a high bar for evidence. It is also appropriate for administrators and legislators to seek solid evidence on which to base OER-oriented policy changes. Does this evidence exist?
Evidence Base for OERs
Rigorous research on the academic and economic impacts associated with OERs is still fairly limited. We also believe that the harm to students from high textbook costs, while intuitively compelling, merits greater scrutiny.
A review conducted by SRI in summer 2015 on behalf of the Hewlett Foundation found that “the majority of research on OER can be characterized as exploration, description, or advocacy rather than controlled empirical tests of efficacy” (Shear et al. 2015, p. 3). This finding was based on a review of studies published in 2012–2014 in a prominent journal in the OER field and on interviews with experts in OERs and OER research and other stakeholders (figure 2). SRI’s review of 78 articles found only two that qualify as impact -studies (experiments or quasi-experiments comparing outcomes of students in courses using OERs with courses using traditional publisher content).
A recent review of nine efficacy studies of OERs (two of them set in secondary schools) found that many of the studies had methodological limitations—for example, they compared courses that use OERs with different courses that do not, used historical comparison groups without controlling for student characteristics, or lacked tests for statistical significance (Hilton 2016).
Notwithstanding these limitations, the evidence is mostly encouraging. Of the nine impact studies, four found improvements in student outcomes on at least one dimension, while the other five found no difference in outcomes. Only one study found possible evidence of harm, as students in OER sections performed worse in two out of seven courses examined (business and psychology) (Hilton 2016). A recent multi-institutional study involving over 16,000 students found that those whose instructors chose OERs performed as well as or better on key outcome measures in 14 of 15 courses examined (Fischer et al. 2015).
Surveys also find consistently positive perceptions among students based on their experiences with OERs. For example, in a study of participants in Project Kaleidoscope (an initiative to promote OER use in eight community colleges), 97 percent of students surveyed responded that OER texts were about the same or better in quality compared to other texts (Bliss et al. 2013).
Hilton (2016, p. 16) observed a general pattern in survey findings that “roughly half of students found OER to be comparable to traditional resources, a sizable minority believed they were superior, and a smaller minority found them to be inferior.” Again, some of these studies have methodological flaws, but the preponderance of evidence seems to point in a positive direction for OERs.
Many OER-related studies report substantial cost savings to students, usually by multiplying the number of students involved by what they would have paid for textbooks.8 But these calculations have two common flaws. First, they use the price of a new textbook to calculate savings, whereas only a fraction of students actually pay this price. Second, the studies often account for only part of the picture: although OERs are free to students and undoubtedly do save them money, evidence suggests that incorporating them in courses involves significant costs to institutions and/or faculty. A study by David Wiley and colleagues (2012) found that the adoption of OERs in high school science courses increased cost per student in the first year (costs declined the next year).
A useful analogy is open source software. There has been a longstanding debate as to whether it saves money for users when taking into account the total cost of ownership (the staff time involved in installing, customizing, and maintaining the software, training users, and so forth). As Kenneth Green of the Campus Computing Project famously wrote, “Open source is not a free beer, it’s a free puppy” (Bubinas 2014).
One must also consider potential printing costs for OER materials, as some students and instructors prefer not to consume instructional materials online. Discovery and vetting of OER materials also takes time, though we have not seen data on how this process compares to that of commercial materials.
In short, OER use may involve a transfer of costs from students to institutions and/or faculty. This possibility in turn raises the question of whether OER adoption is the best use of institutional resources, or greater gains in student outcomes might be achieved through alternate use of those resources (say, better advising). We are not arguing that this is the case, but that these are important questions that warrant attention.
Research to test the effects on student outcomes of a particular set of educational materials is expensive, time consuming, and difficult to execute. Consequently, large-scale, randomized trials for any types of online learning resources are still rare.
The OER field faces particular challenges, starting with the fact that OERs encompass a broad variety of educational resources. Empirical studies have mostly focused on OER textbooks, leaving much of the other content unexamined.
The impact of supplementary uses of OERs (e.g., a slide deck or a learning activity) is hard to measure, and small-scale tests of specific resources have limited generalizability. Moreover, OERs do not generate revenue streams from users that can be used to fund expensive research.
Another challenge stems from a situation many professors will recognize: any time a course is redesigned with new instructional materials it is likely to cover different content, complicating comparisons of student outcomes with traditional versions of the course. This is especially true with OERs, which are intended to prompt changes in pedagogy and may also be heavily customized for any particular implementation. Thus, studies of OERs are likely to compare versions of courses that differ on more dimensions than just the instructional materials. They may be able to measure impact on higher-level outcomes (e.g., course completion and pass rates), but performance on more precise measures of learning (e.g., final exams) may not be meaningful. Extensive customizations may also make it difficult to replicate a particular study.
An additional concern is the potential blurring between research and advocacy, as many studies have been conducted by strong proponents of OERs. This is not surprising, given that champions are most motivated to undertake such studies. It is possible, however, that this research is less convincing to faculty who are hesitant to embrace OERs.
For example, one study conducted by an agenda-driven organization is often used to make the case for OER-favorable policies. A PIRG survey finding that 65 percent of students do not buy required resources is pervasively cited in OER literature, sometimes as the only evidence supporting the claim that students are harmed by textbook costs (Senack 2014, p. 11). But the PIRG report does not make any pretense of objectivity, and the organization itself promises to conduct “hard-hitting research” in support of lower textbook costs. It acknowledges that students have many more options than purchasing new textbooks but does not report on what percentage of students pursue those options (although this question was included in the survey).
In a survey by the more neutral Student Monitor, students report acquiring 91 percent of required textbooks (4.3 out of 4.7 per term), and 70 percent of students report purchasing all of their required textbooks.9 Of those that do not purchase required textbooks, fewer than half reported that affordability was the reason (22 percent responded that they did not purchase a book because the professor does not use it) (also see, e.g., THECB 2014).
Of course one would hope that all students have unfettered access to required instructional materials. Our point is that the question of how the costs of educational resources impact students is serious and complex and deserves more extensive scrutiny.
In sum, there is clearly a need for high-quality research on the effectiveness and cost impacts of OERs, ideally conducted by neutral observers who are not involved in implementation. Few if any of the impact studies available on OERs would be accepted by the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc), which aims to set a high standard for education research (the same could be said for evidence supporting claims by commercial publishers). We know of some studies in progress and look forward to deeper examination of research questions associated with OERs.
Progress toward an Inflection Point
Three important trends may shape the future of OERs, and each raises important questions:
A number of developments seem to be aligning that may kick OER adoption into a higher gear.
Diffusion theory suggests that innovations reach a tipping point once they penetrate 15–20 percent of a market and make the jump from “early adopters” to the “early majority” (Rogers 2003).
Use of OERs as a primary instructional resource has a ways to go, but their regular and occasional use for this purpose is reported by 17.3 percent of faculty (Allen and Seaman 2014, p. 37), and about 35 percent of faculty say they use OERs as supplementary resources at least some of the time. Given that those with experience using OERs tend to report positive experiences, it is reasonable to expect that growing familiarity will lead to greater adoption.
The latest push to scale up OER adoption is through creation of entire degree programs using all open instructional materials. This model was pioneered at Tidewater Community College and will soon be implemented at 38 colleges across the United States through a multifunder initiative led by Achieving the Dream.10
Legal Infrastructure, Policies, and Administrative Support
Substantial progress has been made in establishing a legal infrastructure that supports the creation, sharing, reuse, repurposing, and resharing of open educational content. After a few false starts, Creative Commons licenses have become widely used and accepted.
Public policies promoting OERs have proliferated.11 In 2014 the White House announced several initiatives to support open content (Garg and Chien 2014), and the Department of Education recently appointed its first OER advisor to lead “a national effort to expand schools’ access to high-quality, openly licensed learning resources” (US DoED 2015).
In addition, some state legislatures have set up open textbook collaboratives, and others specifically encourage the use of OERs (Bakia et al. 2015).12 California, for example, provides incentives for community college faculty to redesign courses using OERs.
In K–12, policy levers can play a powerful role in driving adoption given relatively centralized authority over procurement and curriculum. In higher education, policymakers and administrators can provide credibility and other forms of support for OERs, but they have limited ability to prescribe what resources are used in the classroom. Individual faculty members typically make decisions about what instructional resources they will use in their classes. Use of OERs probably makes the most sense when implemented across an entire course or program given the time and effort involved to review and incorporate the materials, but in many postsecondary contexts this level of coordination is not the norm. Does widespread adoption of OERs require more centralized decision making about selection of educational resources?
Greater institutional support is certainly a crucial ingredient given the time and skills needed. In 2010 Hal Plotkin, author of Free to Learn, wrote: “Higher education governance officials need only summon the will and enact governing board policies that institutionalize support for [OERs] to move these activities from the periphery of higher education to its core, where the results would be truly transformative” (Vollmer 2010). This seems like a clear call for an increased administrative and/or policy role in promoting this class of instructional materials and approach to course design.
We have seen many cases in which OER use starts with an individual professor, who then evangelizes OERs among colleagues and administrators. This has probably been the prevalent scenario over the past decade, but it is not often an effective approach for rapid uptake. It seems likely that top-down support and bottom-up interest are both necessary for adoption. The question is what combination of these two forces can lead to widespread change in a reasonable time frame.
Evolution toward Open Education
OERs are part of a broader vision for “open education,” which the Open Education Consortium (www.oeconsortium.org) defines as encompassing “resources, tools, and practices that employ a framework of open sharing to improve educational access and effectiveness worldwide.”
There may be tension between the two core tenets of open education: free and open. Some leaders of the OER movement adamantly oppose any relaxation of the “open” requirement (Wiley 2015). But it seems inevitable that as OER use continues to spread, new constituents will have different needs, perspectives, and priorities.
For example, massive open online courses (MOOCs), hosted on platforms like Coursera and edX, are mostly free to users but carry very restrictive license terms (Griffiths et al. 2015). On the other hand, they offer users something most OERs do not: a semblance of participation in a course taught by a professor, complete with assessments and a community of fellow students. In that sense even proprietary MOOCs arguably do more to make instruction widely accessible than OERs, which mostly provide content but not an educational experience.
MOOCs are just one example of educational services on the Web that fall somewhere between open and restricted. Given that business models for MOOCs, OERs, and for that matter much Web-based content are still emerging, it is possible that goals of open education might be met by services without fully open models. Should the OER movement pursue a “big tent” approach embracing participants with both shared and divergent interests?
The president of McGraw-Hill, a major publisher, recently stated that “Textbooks are dead. They are dinosaurs” (Smith 2014). The online elements once considered “ancillaries” are now replacing printed texts as the principal revenue drivers and focus of investment. Major publishers are building next-generation capabilities—such as adaptivity and continuous sharing of student progress with professors—into their digital products.
At the same time, investors are pouring millions and even billions of dollars into commercial ventures in education technology. Ambient Insights reports edtech investment in the United States of $3.2 billion in 2015, of which $658 million went to ventures serving higher education (Adkins 2016). Even if only a fraction goes toward new product development, these resources dwarf the funding available to support OER development.
What does this mean for OERs? There is debate in the community about whether to focus on developing open alternatives to gateway course textbooks (Wiley’s “content infrastructure”), given that so many instructors still rely on textbooks, or on the development of next--generation learning technologies. An important question is how OERs can compete in this space, which could well favor resource-rich enterprises operating at large scale, as has been the case for most Web-based services.
Universities have access to computer science, learning science, instructional design, and domain expertise, so they are well positioned to lead in new technology R&D. In fact, some of the most important edtech developments originate in university centers and labs, but their record of scaling up use of such technologies is mixed and tends to involve spinning them off into commercial ventures (e.g., CMU’s sale of Carnegie Learning to the University of Phoenix’s parent company).
There are few enthusiasts in the higher education community for a future in which a handful of companies dominate the market for advanced learning software and reap the benefits of scale, such as ownership of massive quantities of student learning data. But this feels like a real danger when market forces on the Web have tended toward winner-take-all outcomes—as illustrated by Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Uber.
One can imagine an alternative future characterized by a robust ecosystem of OER communities of practice, perhaps coexisting with boutique commercial applications. Such a scenario would require concerted efforts by administrators to provide support and free up faculty time and attention. It would probably also require a change in culture, whereby faculty embrace a role as curators of instructional resources—and are more willing to relinquish ownership and control of their intellectual creations (as happened with MIT’s launch of OCW; see Miyagawa in this issue).
In any case, the future of OERs may not be up to institutions or faculty to determine. Students are the ultimate consumers of educational resources and are beginning to exercise more choice over how, when, and where they pursue postsecondary education. Any organization, publisher, or developer aiming to provide educational resources, open or not, will need to provide engaging, effective, and, ideally, inspiring experiences for students.
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1 The study is available at www.studentmonitor.com/f14/Fall14Deck.pdf.
2 For a summary report of the main strands of this investment, see McGill et al. (2013).
3 Online at www.capetowndeclaration.org/read-the-declaration.
4 The Open Learning Initiative (oli.cmu.edu) was a pioneer in developing interactive online courses.
5 Based on estimates from similarweb.com and compete.com, services for tracking web traffic.
6 Information posted at http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u= 93c7b211839bc41ae9670091 3&id=d630a25c82&e= c1d1479f40 , accessed June 15, 2016.
7 Reliable data on the size of the textbook industry are not readily available. McKinsey & Company estimated the market for college course materials at $10 billion, of which $6 billion is deemed “addressable” for textbook publishers (Benson-Armer et al. 2014). A 2014 Wall Street Journal article estimated the college textbook market at $7 billion (Mitchell 2014).
8 A number of these studies are available at the Open Education Research Hub (http://oerhub.net).
9 Converting Data to Insight, fall 2014, p. 67. Available at www.studentmonitor.com/f14/Fall14Deck.pdf. The Student Monitor provides syndicated and custom market research services.
10 For more information see http://achievingthedream.org/resources/initiatives/open- educational-resources-oer-degree-initiative. SRI is the research and evaluation partner for this initiative and I (Griffiths) am the project director.
11 Advocates of open access to research have been similarly successful in bringing about policies that require certain federally funded research to be publicly available within a short period of time.
12 See also www.openaccesstextbooks.org/legislation.html.