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Thursday, June 4, 2020 News

Enthusiasm for OER Takes Off in Colorado with Statewide Support

Open Education

Next up in our monthly series profiling state initiatives is Colorado, whose energetic community of OER advocates is making strides to deliver benefits for students. The state holds its OER Virtual Summit later this week.

In Colorado, student advocates, state legislation, a strong OER Council and higher education support have helped broaden access to affordable, flexible learning materials.

Students in the Centennial State saved $3.4 million in the first wave of an OER grant program – more than six times the return on the investment from the initiative. Colorado lawmakers approved a measure in 2018 that set up the program and a statewide OER Council to roll it out. Working with the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) and leaders on individual campuses, momentum for OER has accelerated. 

The state’s approach to creating an OER ecosystem provides a template for how to leverage resources and maximize impact through collaboration. In addition to cost savings, data suggest that the flexibility of open digital materials translates into better student learning outcomes – something that Colorado is promoting as it expands OER.

Getting the lay of the land

Colorado set up an OER Council in 2017 that began with a landscape analysis of OER in the state. The 15-member council shared its findings and proposed recommendations that were widely adopted, including making the council permanent and $3 million in funding for OER programming.

“We had a group of great people with energy and creativity come together from the state department of higher education, K-12, faculty, administrators, social designers, IT and librarians,” says Jonathan Poritz, Chair Emeritus of the OER Council. “We have all these diverse viewpoints and colleagues willing to work together. Everyone is in it for the good of the state, and the future of higher education.” 

The stakeholder-driven approach was effectively held together through the coordination of CDHE and designated staff responsible for OER, adds Poritz. Early progress in Colorado on expanding OER was outlined in a report released last year. The state’s initial outlay of $550,000 for OER grants was disbursed to 15 institutions and five small groups/faculty members, along with three for professional development grants. The funds help craft OER curriculum in 100 courses used by nearly 24,000 students.  

In addition to cost saving for students, Poritz says he promoted the advantage of OER from his perspective as professor of mathematics at Colorado State University-Pueblo where he has written his own open statistics textbook. 

“There is nothing like the academic freedom that you have when you create your own resource,” Portiz says. “You can make it super topical and relevant to students.”

Building capacity

Ellen Metter, librarian at the tri-institutional Auraria college campus in Denver, says her campus used the OER grants to offer training for faculty on how to customize materials – in big ways and small. While being able to modify OER textbooks to include names from diverse ethnic backgrounds may seem minor, enabling students to identify with materials can be empowering, she says. The next step is to devise a strategy for busy faculty to commit to OER in the long term.

“The whole goal is to get OER baked into the system. You can only do that if provosts are behind this and if there are rewards,” says Metter, who is encouraged that the state has a new requirement that institutions inform students which courses use OER, so that they can take it into consideration when planning their schedule.

One promising practice at the Auraria campus has been the formation of weekly faculty learning communities around open education. Metter says the conversations often veer deeper into teaching practices and OER success stories that fuel broader support for the practice. Metter would like to see more money invested into integrating OER into courses and recognition in the promotion and tenure process for those that use OER. 

“If it is an expectation in your primary teaching that OER is involved, then that becomes something that people do more naturally,” Metter says. 

In addition to the grant program, there has been a push in Colorado to build awareness and offer training for OER. In June 2019, the first statewide OER conference drew 220 people for sessions and workshops that helped fuel enthusiasm for the movement in Colorado. The event also drew the state’s governor, Jared Polis, who has championed OER since his days as a Congressman representing Colorado’s 2nd District. Representative Joe Neguse, who currently holds that seat, also attended the conference and recently helped secure $7 million in federal funding for the Open Textbook Pilot last year. 

Empowering student advocates

Passionate student support for OER is at the foundation of the state’s success. Student stories of difficult financial struggles with the status quo and positive satisfaction with open learning materials have been essential to energizing the movement. Surveys indicate the majority of students and faculty who have used both OER and traditional textbooks believe OER is of equal or higher quality. 

Two state OER grantees in Colorado (Pueblo Community College and Pikes Peak Community College) replaced costly textbooks with OER options in summer courses with no negative impact on student success measures. Student leaders on campuses have started free textbook campaigns and gathered personal stories and signatures in support of OER to underscore the need for affordable options. 

CDHE has worked to engage students to inform future planning to promote OER. The OER Council has encouraged campus-level infrastructure and staffing dedicated to OER to propel campus activity around these initiatives. 

Lobna Alsrraj was first exposed to OER as a student at the University of Northern Colorado when she used OER materials for an online class. As a political science major, Alsrraj says she was interested in the policy aspect of OER as it began to be adopted on her campus. After graduation, Alsrraj became an intern working with Spencer Ellis in CDHE in the division of student success and academic affairs on OER. The two-person team within the department works closely with the council and champions all things OER.

Alsrraj and Ellis work to highlight innovations and foster communication among Colorado’s large and diverse campus communities working to build best OER practices. The initial landscape analysis, which included student voice at the core, made a compelling case to the legislature to fund the OER grant program, Ellis says.

“It’s structured in a way so it doesn’t stifle innovation and money can be used to reinvigorate curriculum,” Ellis says. “It’s an investment in teaching and learning – and it saves students money.”

Sustaining the positive impact

The Department will host an OER Virtual Summit on Friday, June 5, in collaboration with the OER Council and experts from around the state and country.

“At this unique time, and in place of our annual convening, we want to provide a virtual community of practice and learning, that continues to support the tremendous efforts our faculty and staff have put forth in response to the pandemic and the needs of our students,” said CDHE Executive Director Angie Paccione. “Along with our ongoing initiatives, like Governor Polis’ Z Degree Challenge, this summit gives us an opportunity to share best practices and learn from leading experts on these topics.”

Buoyed by the success of the first round of grants, there are high hopes for the impact of the $1 million in OER support that was awarded this academic year. A third round of funding, using the last of the three-year, $3 million grant is slated to be disbursed in 2020-21.

Colorado’s next challenge, says Ellis: “Making sure OER is sustainable beyond the life of the grants. We want to make we use OER as a tool for the future of learning and to achieve goals of equity in higher education.”

The vision for the state is for all institutions not only to be aware of OER, but to embrace it as common practice. 

Poritz adds that it will take a culture change to make the full transformation. “We need to change the mindset and it’s happening slowly,” he says. “The big movement I’m pushing on my campus – and eventually at the state levels is to be a default OER institution.”

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