Tuesday, May 12, 2020 News

Inside the Collaborative Effort in Massachusetts to Advance OER

Open Education

Massachusetts offers an inspiring example of statewide collaboration on OER to benefit students. SPARC offers an inside look at how the state’s OER initiative developed and what it plans for the future.

While mobilizing support for OER can—and often does—look different depending on local dynamics, Massachusetts offers an inspiring example of what works for an effective statewide movement.

There isn’t one group to credit or one event to highlight. Rather, there have been stakeholders at all levels of the education community working collaboratively and tirelessly to put the commonwealth at the forefront of OER adoption. Student voices have championed the need for affordable options. Campus administrators have provided support, and state higher education officials have endorsed OER policies and funding to make it happen.

Efforts to advance OER go back more than a decade in the state. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst started an open education initiative with mini-grants for faculty in 2011, and the Massachusetts #GoOpen Project was launched in 2013 led by Northern Essex Community College working in collaboration with other community colleges statewide. 

Marilyn Billings, Head of the Office for Scholarly Communications at UMass Amherst, says the statewide effort gained momentum after the Northeast OER Summit two years ago, where she and other state leaders sat together during a workshop.

 “We were infused by enthusiasm at the table and urged to put together a small consortium grant for statewide OER work,” says Billings.

About the same time, students were getting the attention of policymakers. The statewide Student Advisory Council (SAC) presented a resolution to the state Board of Higher Education in April 2018 asking the board to recognize OER as a means to generate textbook cost savings for students and calling on the state Department of Higher Education (DHE) to expand OER more broadly.

“We realized the perfect storm just happened,” says Robert Awkward, Director of Learning Outcomes Assessment at the Massachusetts DHE. “It was an opportunity for the department to get moving on an issue that was of primary concern to our students from an affordability perspective, and from our department in terms of equity, quality education and learning.”

Charting a course

The Massachusetts DHE upped its commitment to OER, giving two direct OER Performance Incentive Fund (PIF) grants of $150,000 to the Massachusetts OER Collaborative, which included UMass Amherst, Worcester State University, Northern Essex Community College, and Holyoke Community College; and $100,000 to the Viking OER Textbook Affordability Initiative at Salem State University.

In the fall of 2018, the state OER Working Group was formed with a diverse group of stakeholders that assimilated the work of the two PIF grants and developed a set of recommendations to expand the use of OER.

The UMass Amherst Consortium grant began with a survey to establish a baseline on OER use. The results revealed that 71% of Massachusetts public higher education institutions had some level of OER activity, resulting in student savings of $10,000 to $100,000 for about half of the institutions. According to the findings, what kept faculty from adopting OER was the belief that materials were too hard to find, not adequate in their subject, or of high enough quality. The  findings helped inform OER training for almost 500 faculty and staff conducted in five locations across Massachusetts last year. 

Engaging student voices

Meanwhile, the Student Advisory Council continued its efforts to encourage wider use of OER across the state and held a Legislative Advocacy Day in January 2019, a Public Higher Education Advocacy Day in March 2019, and an OER Photo Campaign in the spring of 2019 as part of international Open Education Week.

Jorgo Gushi, President of the Student Government Association at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester has been active in these efforts as chair of the Student Advisory Council.

“I believe students have a vital role in OER to push forward to make this happen,” says the 19-year-old engineering major. “OER is an opportunity to have more affordable and accessible higher education.”

On his campus, Gushi has met with faculty and administrators in an effort to inform them about the availability of high-quality OER and explain how expensive, traditional textbooks create unnecessary financial barriers for many students. He is currently collecting statements of support from students and faculty to send to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE). Gushi has also advocated for OER funding at the Massachusetts State House on Community Colleges Advocacy Day and PHENOM Advocacy Day, scheduling one-on-one meetings with local legislators.

“Our success is putting a face behind the numbers and data and letting students tell their own stories to tug at the hearts and minds of lawmakers,” Gushi says. 

Putting recommendations into practice

By the fall of 2019, the OER Working Group had completed its research and submitted a final report with recommendations to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, which was unanimously approved. In response, Awkward from the DHE was named the statewide OER coordinator. A permanent statewide OER Advisory Council was also established and met for the first time in March 2020. It currently consists of one representative from each of the 29 public institutions in Massachusetts as well as various other stakeholders to assist in implementing the recommendations.

Rather than ushering in OER from the top down, Awkward attributes success in Massachusetts to the vision of Patricia Marshall,  Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs & Student Success of the DHE. Marshall espoused the view that long-term success would be best achieved by working with faculty, staff, administrators, students, and external representatives (including a bookstore manager, employer representative, and a faculty union representative) in order to build broad, grassroots support.  

Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), presented at the group’s kickoff event and has remained a frequent guest at meetings, being located just a short drive across the Rhode Island state line.

“It has been inspiring to see a state come together around a vision for OER to make education more affordable and equitable for all students. Massachusetts adopted an inclusive and collaborative approach that has benefitted from multiple perspectives and a focus on action. It is a great model for other statewide initiatives,” says Allen. 

Lately, the OER Advisory Council is focused on conducting research to determine how to best implement the recommendations in the final OER report approved by the BHE. Among these recommendations is to increase faculty education and training. As a result, members will be offering virtual OER training for faculty starting now and continuing into the summer. In addition, they will also hold virtual train-the-trainer workshops this fall.

Pivoting to keep the momentum going

“The more that public higher education is being challenged by less and less funding, the more we have to be scrappy. OER fits into that work,” Billings says. “It also involves more student participation in the education process – developing curriculum in collaboration with faculty. Together they are able to incorporate diverse, local examples where students can see their own voices reflected and come across truly as impactful and more culturally diverse.”

Kerry McManus, a 20 year-old sophomore at Fitchburg State University who serves on the OER Advisory Council, plans to become a teacher and says she is passionate about making education accessible. In addition to the cost saving benefit of OER, McManus says she prefers the learning advantage of these interactive materials. Interest in OER has picked up on her campus and there is a push to get grants to faculty interested in developing OER curriculum in some of the classes with the highest enrollment. 

Due to the closure of campuses as a result of COVID-19, plans for OER educational events are being moved to remote platforms. “We are trying to figure out ways to promote student advocacy on these issues in the next few months so that our momentum doesn’t die down,” McManus says. “We want to work with other students and the resources we have to put together the puzzle pieces and do what we can do virtually.”

Gushi serves on the Student Outreach Committee of the OER Statewide Advisory Council and is working to develop strategies and initiatives to encourage other students to be more involved in advocacy during these unprecedented times. Several virtual town halls have been organized around the state to build support for funding that includes OER. Gushi recently moderated the one hosted by his community college.

While COVID-19 has created many new challenges, it has also presented new opportunities and made the importance and impact of OER clearer than ever. As the situation unfolds further, it is clear that advocates in Massachusetts will continue to seek creative ways to leverage OER as a solution to new challenges and continue having a positive impact for students.

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