Tuesday, March 10, 2020 News

Annual OER Survey: Momentum Continues to Grow as Landscape Evolves

Open Education

OER awareness has crossed the halfway mark for U.S. faculty for the first time, and adoption continues to grow.

A new report from Bay View Analytics (formerly the Babson Survey Research Group) provides an updated look at the impact of open educational resources on the college textbook landscape. The report, entitled Inflection Point: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2019, is the sixth report in a series released over the last decade analyzing faculty attitudes toward course materials. This year’s installment is based on a survey of more than 5,700 faculty and department chairpersons during the 2018-19 academic year. As the title suggests, the report’s primary conclusion is that the market is at a turning point, and new trends are likely to shape the future of course materials.

Key Findings

The report’s primary focus is open educational resources (OER)—materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose. The findings show that faculty awareness, adoption, and satisfaction with these materials continues to grow, along with evidence that campus efforts to support OER continue to have a positive impact.

  • More than half of faculty (53%) report some level of awareness of OER, up 19 percentage points from about a third (34%) in 2014-15. 
  • More than a quarter of faculty who teach introductory subjects (26%) say they have adopted OER at least once. Out of all faculty, 14% reported using OER at least once as a required material and 23% as a supplemental material.
  • Adoption of OER as a required material has more than tripled since 2015-16 for faculty teaching introductory subjects, and nearly tripled for all faculty as well.
  • Faculty who adopt OER are just as satisfied with their textbook as those using non-OER material. OER users were significantly more satisfied with cost than non-users, but tended to be less satisfied with the availability of instructor supplements. 
  • Faculty who are aware of an OER initiative at their department, campus, or system are much more likely to be adopters of OER, suggesting these efforts are having a positive impact.

The report also looks at broader trends in faculty preferences and opinions about course materials. Overall, faculty are becoming more aware that cost is a problem that prevents students from accessing their materials. Faculty also continue to become more comfortable with the shift from print to digital.

  • A vast majority of faculty (81%) agree at some level that the cost of course materials is a serious problem for their students, climbing slightly over last year. More than a third (34%) of all faculty and 43% teaching introductory courses strongly agree.  
  • There is a growing acceptance for digital materials by faculty. Faculty are roughly divided in thirds between print, digital, and neutral, with slightly more preferring digital over print. However, these preferences vary by subject and other factors.
  • A majority of faculty (55%) ranked cost as the primary reason that some of their students do not have access to textbooks. Notably, another 37% believe students don’t have access to the material because they think they don’t need it. 

For the first time, this year’s survey asked faculty about “inclusive access”—a model for automatically billing students for access to digital course materials. The report found that while adoption of “inclusive access” was not widespread, its marketing was likely to appeal to faculty concerns about cost and access. However, results also suggest that there may be several drawbacks to this model that faculty do not yet realize.

  • Faculty reported that decisions to adopt “inclusive access” are commonly made by administrators (who have traditionally not been involved in course material selection because of academic freedom). A substantial 44% of faculty said that “inclusive access” decisions were made solely by administrators, and that another 15% of faculty said administrators were involved in the decision. A minority (41%) said decisions were made solely by faculty.
  • A majority of faculty cite the option to purchase print materials (64%) and access to materials at the end of the course (56%) as very important or critical factors for the successful implementation of “inclusive access” models—which are often based on digital subscriptions that may not offer either option.

What it Means

Overall, the report’s findings make it clear that the OER movement is growing stronger than ever. What started over a decade ago as a vision of making free, flexible materials available to everyone is now a mainstream idea that has reached the majority of U.S. faculty—and more than one in five have used OER in their classroom. This progress is something for the movement to be proud of, and it has benefited thousands upon thousands of students in the process.

At the same time, it is also clear that the publishing industry’s pivot to “inclusive access” seeks to lock down the market in the face of this progress. As the report notes, the marketing for “inclusive access” is likely to resonate with faculty who support affordability and day-one access to materials—and perhaps more importantly, with administrators who are in a decision-making role. This makes efforts to educate campus about how “inclusive access” reduces competition and can be a bad deal for students more important than ever.

OER has always played an important role in setting the bar for course materials higher in ways that benefit students and faculty. The future is not just about advocating for affordability and access; it is also a fight for academic freedom, for materials that are more relevant and can engage students in the classroom, and for control over teaching and learning infrastructure. For SPARC’s part, we will be working hard with our allies to ensure that institutions are informed about the risks of “inclusive access” and how to mitigate them, to advance policies that invest in OER as critical academic infrastructure, and to continue pointing “true north” towards a system where Open is the default.

Hailey Babb contributed to this post. 


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