The stars are aligning in the Lone Star state when it comes to open educational resources (OER). Stakeholders in Texas have worked together to generate legislation and resources in support of flexible, affordable educational materials that are now taking hold.
“OER really caught fire here,” said Scott Hochberg, a former Texas state representative behind legislation promoting open initiatives. “Go back 10 years and the barrier was total lack of awareness and significant opposition from publishers. We’ve come a long way.”
This fall alone, the state opened a repository for OER materials, a task force forwarded recommendations to The University of Texas System to expand OER, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) formed a Division of Digital Learning. These recent developments, along with valuable training and information-sharing networks, make Texas a go-to state for ideas on how to get traction with OER.
What’s behind the state’s success?
“Having faculty members, students, and librarians at the grassroots level as strong advocates, along with the interest of the state legislature are all driving OER efforts in Texas,” says Kylah Torre, program director with THECB’s Division of Digital Learning. And, it helps to have the presence of OpenStax nearby creating openly licensed textbooks at Houston’s Rice University.
When Torre came to THECB three years ago, overseeing state faculty grants to develop OER was just part of her job. As projects grew, OER became the sole focus of her work. Now, the Division of Digital Learning (newly named in November) aims to place OER at the center of strategic planning for education.
“Our larger vision of incorporating OER work into our division and initiatives is going to be helpful,” Torre says. “There is a spotlight on that right now. We are using our OER initiatives to make the pivot to digital learning more affordable and effective.”
Part of the federal CARES Act money that the state received for coronavirus relief this year was directed to expand OER, including offering webinars to train faculty in best practices.
The Texas legislature has been pivotal in advancing OER.
In 2009, the state adopted a policy that gives authority to the Commissioner of Education to include OER and other digital resources on the official list of approved instructional materials for K-12 schools. In 2017, lawmakers crafted a definition of “open education resource instructional material” that has served as a national model. Texas SB810 established a faculty OER grant program in higher education, required course markings for OER, and set up a feasibility study for a statewide repository. Bills passed in 2019 to fund a statewide repository (HB 3652) and require dual credit programs to consider using low-cost OER (HB 3650).
On September 1, the OERTX Repository was launched. The microsite for OER was developed and is being maintained through a partnership between the THECB and the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME). It is intended to be a central, searchable hub for OER material.
“The hope is [OERTX] helps with the uptake of OER,” says Judith Sebesta, executive director of the Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas (DigiTex), which supports the adaptation, development, and implementation of OER at community colleges and universities in Texas. “Discoverability of OER has been an issue, including finding OER that can be mapped to the learning outcomes for Texas core curriculum and workforce education courses.”
Last year, an independent survey of OER was commissioned by DigiTex, THECB and ISKME. Responses from 100 two- and four-year institutions (public and private) painted a picture of growing commitment to OER. It revealed 38 percent of schools had formal programs and initiatives in place to support OER and 51 percent were in the process or interested in implementing OER in the future. It showed those leading the way in OER across the state are appointing committees to shepherd the OER work at their institutions, funding faculty training, and collecting data to demonstrate the impact of OER use.
The survey results make the case for channeling additional resources to expand OER and educate faculty in their use. DigiTex, founded as the Virtual College of Texas in 1998, has long promoted inter-institutional course sharing across the state. Additionally, they now spearhead convenings, lead the Texas Quality Matters Consortium, and conduct research and offer professional development activities.
In the summer of 2019, Texas held its first statewide OER conference and a virtual gathering is slated for March 2021, co-organized by DigiTex and the Texas Digital Library.
The 2019 analysis prompted DigiTex to begin offering a 10-module, online training program for faculty and others: Texas Learn OER. The curriculum was written by Carrie Gits, who developed a similar program for Austin Community College (ACC) as her capstone project as a fellow in the SPARC Open Education Leadership Program.
Sebesta says the impact of leadership at ACC and its Achieving the Dream grant to develop OER degrees can’t be overestimated in building momentum for open. “That collaborative effort was one initiative that helped kick-start this boom of OER in Texas,” she says.
Gits, head librarian at ACC who got involved with OER in 2016 as part of the Achieving the Dream grant team, says the landscape study gave a useful snapshot of OER and has led to conversations among colleges and universities.
“There has been more community building and people reaching out to collaborate with others in recent years,” says Gits, a SPARC Steering Committee member. Last year, ACC was part of the OpenStax Institutional Partnership Program that focused on increasing OER adoption and encouraged peer collaboration with librarians, instructional designers, and faculty.
Michelle Reed, director of Open Educational Resources at the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, credits the growth of OER in the state to a variety of efforts that promote collaboration. She is active in the Open Education Network which has worked with the Texas Digital Library to sponsor the OER Ambassadors Program to actively teach people how to become advocates for OER in their local context. There have also been informal convenings of practitioners to share stories of what is and isn’t working in rolling out open in the state and a new mindset in turning the tide.
“We are flipping the traditional approach to resource evaluation and making the default open – rather than defaulting to a commercial product,” says Reed, who co-edited a book released in May about implementing OER designations in student information and registration systems. The course marking project began when she was in the SPARC Open Education Leadership Program, during which she developed a toolkit to help other Texas institutions implement the requirements of SB810.
At the University of Texas System, one of six university systems in the state, Rebecca Karoff, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, works closely with administrators and faculty on OER, framing it as a student success issue.
“Libraries have played a central role in advancing OER in Texas,” says Karoff. “Add this to the leadership and support provided by the THECB, DigiTex and community colleges, and Texas is putting a dynamic OER ecosystem in place.”
The UT System recently convened a systemwide task force to develop a set of recommendations about affordable learning that includes a primary focus on OER. Provosts nominated representatives to serve on the Affordable Learning Accelerator Task Force including library deans, OER librarians, faculty, students, representatives from health institutions, auxiliary services and online educational technology. After 16 months of analyzing data, practice and policies across UT institutions and Texas, the group produced a list of 10 recommendations that are now before the chancellor for review. The UT System recently released a statement about the urgent need to expand OER in response to COVID-19.
“University systems can play a catalyzing role to elevate and amplify the work of their institutions to build momentum on OER,” says Karoff.
Adds Gits: “It’s important to have the right stakeholders at the table so everyone has an understanding of what OER is and can be. We need to tell how it benefits both faculty and students and make sure others including academic advisors are aware. I believe building community across the institution is critical for OER to be successful.”