Wednesday, September 25, 2019 News

A Look at Community Colleges Leading the Way on OER

Open Education

Community colleges have been at the heart of the open educational resources (OER) movement from the very beginning. We highlight some of the outstanding work happening at community colleges in the SPARC community.

Earlier this year, SPARC established a seat on our Steering Committee to represent our growing community college membership. Following the profile we did on Lansing Community College, we wanted to highlight some of the other outstanding work happening at other community colleges in the SPARC network. 

Eager to expand open and affordable access to higher education opportunities, community colleges have been at the heart of the open educational resources (OER) movement from the very beginning. Early investments in OER programs are starting to pay off, and students and faculty who see the benefits are pushing for more offerings. While cost savings to students is an important driver of OER adoption, colleges are also exploring the benefits of customizing curriculum. An influx of grant money has accelerated OER adoption along degree pathways, and campuses are looking for ways to institutionalize funding streams to ensure gains continue.

Strategizing for sustainability

At Austin Community College (ACC), Head Librarian Carrie Gits helped leverage pockets of OER activity among individual faculty members into a widespread adoption of the practice on the college’s 11 campuses across several counties in central Texas serving 40,000 students.  ACC received a $75,000 OER Degree Initiative grant in 2016 from Achieving the Dream to fund much of the work and formed a consortium with two other community colleges to help convert courses to open. ACC was one of 38 colleges in 13 states that received a portion of the $9 million initiative.

Gits provided learning and training opportunities for faculty participating in the grant. The grant also gave faculty stipends or a course release to create OER. The idea was for students in two “Z-Degree” pathways (Associate of Arts in General Studies and an Associate of Science in General Studies) to graduate without any textbook expenses. 

Branded at ZTC (Zero Textbook Costs), ACC now offers 435 OER/ZTC course sections, which represent about 4 percentof its 11,408 sections. Cost savings for students in the past three years: $3 million — particularly important at a two-year institution where students often attend part-time and have limited finances. But Gits says ACC’s message to promote OER has been changing.

“We advocate to faculty the power behind OER and what it allows them to do to adapt course materials and curriculum to enhance learning outcomes,” says Gits.

As faculty members develop more material, one of the challenges for the library is to offer a platform for OER. Unlike a four-year university that may have an institutional repository, ACC’s instructors often host their curriculum on within the learning management system (Blackboard). Legislation approved this year in Texas would establish a statewide OER repository, providing institutions with an infrastructure solution within the next few years.

With the OER Degree grant almost over, the conversation now is about how to keep the momentum going forward. “The consensus is that everyone wants it to continue, the question now is: ‘What are the strategies to make it sustainable and keep faculty engaged and supported?’” she says. Gits created a faculty development OER training for her capstone project as a fellow in the SPARC Open Education Leadership Program this year.

Meeting faculty where they are

Gits’ mentor in the SPARC program, Quill West, began her OER journey over a decade ago helping community college students in rural Washington afford professional technical programs. In addition to tuition, many had to buy their own knives for culinary courses or shop tools for auto mechanic programs that they would eventually use on the job. When it came to taking the general education requirements, students often didn’t want to have to purchase an English textbook.

“Many would try to use the library resources to get by without buying the textbook,” says West, who began working on an Open Course Library project to make materials more accessible to students. She was hired in 2012 as the first person in the state whose full-time job was to be OER librarian working for Tacoma Community College. West helped convert 10 of the most enrolled courses at TCC to open in part with a grant program supported with student government money. In the three years she was at TCC, students saved $1 million in textbooks.

At nearby Pierce College, West worked to create online and face-to-face OER degree pathways in a year at the system’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord campus. Now she is working to expand OER on other campuses in large general education classes. “The focus is on where we can get the most student impact, not only saving them money, but engagement in courses and help faculty realize their best teaching,” says West.

When faculty members express an interest in OER, West is quick to respond. “It’s about being available when they need you, where they need you,” she says of her job, which is part advocate, part instructional designer. West meets with faculty in their offices, online, in coffee shops in the evenings and at meetings to consult on OER development.

Pierce College and TCC are part of the system supported by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). SBCTC is a pioneer in the OER movement and became SPARC’s first state agency member earlier this year. SBCTC’s current work includes OPEN Washington, a network that offers resources for faculty and staff across the state.  

Comprehensive approach to OER

For community colleges converting to OER, there is an added layer to contextualize and design support materials to help students who may struggle in introductory courses. Those supplemental resources need to be built alongside OER curriculum.

Richard Sebastian, Director of the OER Degree Initiative at Achieving the Dream, says community colleges are well positioned to promote OER. “It’s a tool to help students be successful,” he says. “And the role of the faculty is very student, very learner centered.”

West agrees. “Community colleges are very focused on the teaching relationship with students,” she says. “Because we don’t have research responsibilities, our faculty members are incentivized to focus on their teaching…OER ties to our mission.” 

The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence recently recognized Pierce College Fort Steilacoom with its Rising Star award for improving student retention and raising the school’s completion rate of 59 percent –  nearly 20 percentage points above the national average.

“OER has grown so much in the past two years,” West says. “I see more and more community colleges embracing this and trying to find a way to be sustainable in how they go about it. I think we need to find ways to institutionalize this work…We need to find creative partnerships to help us achieve our goals.”

Raising OER awareness

Northern Virginia Community College recently adopted a college-wide OER policy that sets up standard definitions for OER, what is meant by “affordable,” and how to provide documentation. That information will be made available to students in the course catalogue and in the student information system.

“What we are trying to do is raise visibility,” says Braddlee, Dean of Learning & Technology Resources at Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Campus, where he adds the student government has been supportive.

With large scale grant funding from foundations like Gates and Hewlett becoming less available on an ongoing basis, NVCC is seeking a path to sustainability.  NVCC recently received funding from the Virtual Library of Virginia, which was funded by the state legislature to develop two new OER courses in collaboration with other colleges in the state. “That is starting to serve as a model for local funding and support,” Braddlee says.

NVCC established an institutional staff position to support OER advocacy and outreach. The college also is now able to document in its administrative system who has adopted OER, which will provide a platform for doing evaluation. Braddlee says he’s looking forward to more consistent tracking and data to gauge the impact of money saved and student learning through open materials to help garner support.

Braddlee is assessing what faculty need with time and resources to continue to promote OER and encourage it to be interactive. “The bigger picture about equity and agency is to get students not to think of themselves as not as consumers of information, but producers of knowledge,” he says.

The majority of community college courses are general education and some become barriers to student advancement. “We are the sweet spot for OER adoption,” says Braddlee. “By adopting OER, we remove one more speed bump in the process.” 


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