The Role of Open Educational Resources in the Student Success Agenda

The Role of Open Educational Resources in the Student Success Agenda
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In June, 2016, the national educational reform organization Achieving the Dream (ATD) convened the largest ever gathering of community colleges committed to developing full degree programs using open educational resources (OER). Teams comprising faculty, presidents, provosts, deans, librarians, and other administrators from 38 colleges and 13 states collaborated over two and a half days of meetings, discussions, and activities to begin their work designing their OER degree programs. These colleges, who educate and train more than 500,000 students, will work under the guidance of ATD and in collaboration with their colleagues in the unique national program to start their OER degree programs by Spring 2017.

This groundbreaking event, and the energy and enthusiasm it unlocked among the participants, has convinced me that unleashing the scaled force of OER on community college campuses across America can be a key lever for accelerating student success work. The launch of this unique initiative generated interest among educators, technologists, and many others in the field across social media. In fact, the event’s #OERdegree hashtag was trending in the Twitter top 50 on the first day. The momentum continued during the event, and in the days and weeks that followed.

Scaled Adoption

Scaled adoption of OER is fundamentally a student success strategy. It must become a core part of our larger work as a community college reform movement to boost college access and completion, particularly for underserved students.

Here’s why.

Research confirms for us that financial roadblocks for community college students are real and they are intense. Developing degrees without textbook costs will help full-time community college students save approximately $1,300 each year, which amounts to about one third of the cost of an Associate’s degree. Research also tells us that students who don’t complete college are more than 50 percent more likely than those who graduated to cite textbook costs as a major financial barrier, according to a study by the research firm Public Agenda.

At the OER degree launch event, Dr. David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer and Founder of Lumen Learning, and a nationally recognized OER scholar, talked about research based at Princeton University and published in the journal Science which said: “Lacking money or time can lead one to make poorer decisions, possibly because poverty imposes a cognitive load that saps attention and reduces effort.” (Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function). An article about the study published on Princeton University’s website states: “In a series of experiments, the researchers found that pressing financial concerns had an immediate impact on the ability of low-income individuals to perform on common cognitive and logic tests. On average, a person preoccupied with money problems exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep….The researchers suggest that being poor may keep a person from concentrating on the very avenues that would lead them out of poverty. A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time.”

OER degrees will help to eliminate those financial burdens that can impede a student’s ability to focus on learning.

Open educational resources help students be ready for learning on day one. Many students delay purchasing textbooks until their financial aid is in place, or until they see how important the text really is to learning in a course. Both strategies put them behind students who are fortunate enough to purchase required textbooks and come to class ready to begin.

However, student affordability, while an urgent need to address, is not the sole or fundamental value of OER degrees.


The benefit of OER to education is more powerful than simply reducing the cost of textbooks, which is often the catchphrase used when describing its value. Using open resources has the power to literally transform teaching and learning in ways that improve both student and faculty engagement. Using open resources in instruction can create the customized and personalized learning that has the promise to open up our classrooms to those students who so need to be freed from its current construct.

Adoption of OER can connect faculty in deeper ways to their disciplines. It brings librarians, co-curators of course content, back into the heart of important learning outcomes conversations. OER can engage students in deeper ways as well, with new approaches like one proposed by David Wiley around assigning renewable rather than disposable homework assignments. Students, tasked with homework of value, can learn by retrieving, remixing, and redistributing OER as part of a richer and deeper classroom experience.

I think of these words from Ta Neishi Coates in his book Between the World and Me to bring this concept home. He writes:

“The streets were not my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left.” He continues: “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity.” And later he points out, “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

Coates captures the promise of OER in these moving words, a promise also captured by David Price in his book, Open. He writes:

“We’re becoming increasingly dissatisfied and consequentially disengaged from the way we learn in the formal space. ‘Open’ is shifting the focus of attention from how we should teach to the best ways to learn.”


Our students are savvy consumers. Students who participated in an engaging and honest panel discussion at the launch event spoke to how they are already accessing open resources to support their learning, often finding resources on their own. They understand, innately, how they learn best and therefore seek out means to keep moving forward in their dream to earn a college degree and enter the workforce energized and prepared.

Accelerated Adoption

I believe that we can accelerate our OER adoption efforts using a number of important reform lessons learned from a decade of student success work led by Achieving the Dream.

First, the design of this OER degree initiative work builds in scale, an ingredient we learned must be part of any reform design to move the completion needle. Most OER efforts are single-faculty, single-course efforts that are not connected. Requiring colleges to build full and aligned degree programs with OER builds in connection and scale. Many of the 38 colleges selected to participate in this initiative are integrating this degree-building work with their guided program pathways. That’s a strong start.

Second, introduction of OER ensures that all students are ready to learn on day one. Colleges designing OER degrees will be focusing on communicating the availability of OER as they redesign their student intake systems, changing course notations in their enrollment management systems, integrating messaging in recruitment literature, and orientations, and working with their advisors to help students enter pathways with full degree OER opportunities.

Third, these colleges are already rethinking the design of their developmental education approaches. The introduction of OER offers new ways to think about ensuring preparedness for college-level courses.

Fourth, OER enables faculty to use a mix of learning resources that allow students to learn in ways–and at a time and place—that are best suited for their personal learning style. “OER can help achieve ‘non-discriminatory access’ to education. Participation in education is one of the most effective means of overcoming socio-economic barriers. However, access to education may be limited by a number of factors – poverty, rural settings and a lack of flexible delivery options.” (Open Educational Resources: A Catalyst for Innovation, OECD 2015)

Fifth, this work cannot be done in isolation. We have already begun to see in OER planning that colleges are aware of and are planning to address issues around transfer as well as opportunities for community impact.

Finally, we learned from more than 10 years of research at Achieving the Dream that designing pilots without thinking about how to sustain the pilot at full scale, on the front end, can doom the pilot from success from the start. Colleges participating in the national OER degree initiative are building sustainability plans, now, that include essential components such as pricing strategies and policies for students, and costing and funding strategies for the institutions. They are well aware of the importance of sustainability.

Indeed, there is much at stake with this effort, if we believe, as David Price does, in the true power of “open.”

“The opening of learning is transforming every aspect of our lives. It offers the promise of a more equal distribution of wealth, opportunity and power. It can close the gap between the rich and poor, sick and healthy, strong and weak, and it accelerates the speed at which we solve intractable problems.”

This national initiative of “the opening of learning” has the power to literally transform lives, the underpinning of our work at Achieving the Dream.

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