Grantees of the federal Open Textbook Pilot are beginning to roll out projects to expand Open Educational Resources (OER) on their campuses and beyond.
As part of federal funding approved by Congress, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $1.53 million to Loyola Marymount University and $1.16 million to the University of Houston-Downtown. The money will be used to develop and promote the use of open textbooks in order to reduce the cost of higher education and help students to complete college.
The 16 projects that have been funded by the program prior to this year are projected to save students more than $250 million. Congress has invested a total of $47 million in the program.
Here’s an update on the plans for the most recent OER projects funded in California and Texas.
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles
Four private California institutions—Loyola Marymount University, Saint Mary’s College of California, Santa Clara University, and the University of San Francisco—together hope to save nearly 4,000 students $700,000 a year by providing openly licensed textbooks in high-enrollment courses.
The project will engage 45 faculty members from eight different academic disciplines to form OER for Social Justice teams, according to Jamie Hazlitt, associate dean of the library at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), a private Jesuit university in Los Angeles.
An OER librarian (Karna Younger, LMU), educational technology expert (to be hired later this year), and campus library OER liaisons (Swetta Abeyta, SMC; Nicola Andrews, USF; and Lev Rickards, SCU) will help the teams in the development of OER, with an emphasis on integrating diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism (DEIA) into the courses. The materials produced will be made available for adoption and adaptation to faculty teaching in these disciplines around the country.
Although the majority of the open textbook grants have been awarded to public universities, Hazlitt and LMU project co-leads Nataly Blas and Kristine Brancolini spearheaded Loyola’s application, in part, to draw attention to the affordability issues for students at all kinds of institutions.
“We want to challenge misperceptions about the needs of students at private universities,” Hazlitt said. “All four of our institutions are in some of the most expensive cities in the state, but our student body doesn’t necessarily reflect students who can pay the full rate for tuition, rent and textbooks.”
The grant is an opportunity for the private institutions to be leaders in the OER space, she said. And as faith-based schools with missions dedicated to social justice, Hazlitt said the member libraries were uniquely qualified to bring faculty together to create content that could have a broad impact.
The OER for Social Justice grant will fund $40,000 in stipends per faculty team (distributed over three years as projects progress). The team leader will receive an additional $1,000 per year in recognition of their responsibility, and the remaining $37,000 will be split evenly among all team members.
Hazlitt, a fellow in the 2019-20 SPARC Open Education Leadership program, is building on the success of existing OER initiatives on her campus. LMU just wrapped up the third cohort of an annual grant from the Academic Technology Committee that began in 2020 to support faculty in the adoption and creation of OER. With this model, the library called for departmental team applications in an effort to spark broader cultural change than would be possible with individual faculty members. Since 2020, an investment of $65,000 helped 32 faculty members implement, adapt, and create new OER that are saving 1,400 students nearly $160,000 a year.
In 2021, LMU received a professional incentive grant from SCELC to partner with other universities to encourage faculty to use OER. In addition to promoting its open textbook library, LMU and Saint Mary’s College of California offered faculty micro grants of $250 to review open textbooks—with the hope that exposing them to the material would lead to embracing the practice. From that grant, there were 14 OER reviews from faculty in 11 departments, and five OER adoptions.
The track record so far has demonstrated that a little funding can go a long way, said Hazlitt. She added that the new federal grant is a chance to continue to create more OER advocates and champions on each of the four institution’s campuses.
For more information, visit the OER for Social Justice project website.
University of Houston-Downtown
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is a minority-serving, Hispanic-serving, four-year public institution where all of its 14,000 students commute to campus for classes. Two UHD chemistry professors, Eszter Trufan and Elene Bouhoutsos-Brown have been developing visually exciting and free chemistry lab curricula for about a decade.
Their most recent project combines chemistry lab techniques, learning objectives, experiments, rigorous instruction and assessment aligned with empirical reasoning, critical thinking and teamwork skills. They leverage best practices in science pedagogy including scaffolding, highly structured learning environments, portfolio-based assessment and frequent low-stakes assessments, all of which can be implemented in both in-person and remote courses.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their challenge was to adapt the curricula online in a way that maintained the high standards of the hands-on laboratory courses while making the materials safer and more environmentally friendly. They recorded videos of themselves demonstrating the lab experiments that could be safely and inexpensively completed at home. Once the pilot curriculum was ready, Trufan, associate professor of chemistry, and Bouhoutsos-Brown, chemistry adjunct professor, taught their first version of the remote Gen Chem 1 lab in the summer of 2020.
Instead of using pre-made ($200) kits available commercially, the professors assembled their own kits for students (costing about $60) that were mostly paid for with the university’s pandemic relief funds.
“It definitely was a more creative approach,” said Trufan.
The take-home boxes included a scale, thermometer, plastic beakers, graduated cylinders, Erlenmeyer flasks, and disposable pipettes; other items students could buy, such as distilled water at the grocery store, were less than $10. Students checked out their kits set up in the lobby of the UHD Science and Technology Building by scanning a QR code and returned the non-consumable components of their kits using the same approach. It was all based on an honor system.
“We tried to keep our costs to a minimum while keeping things super safe,” Bouhoutsos-Brown. “All the experiments were very green with things they could dispose of in the trash and wasn’t going to hurt them or their kids.”
Feedback was positive from the first class of about 20 students. The pair then trained the other lab instructors on the method for fall 2020 and spring 2021 which resulted in more than 600 students in Gen Chem I & II using these resources in their chemistry lab courses that year. The professors requested feedback from both students and instructors on their experiences with the content and used the comments to continually refine their resources.
In the fall of 2021, when most classes returned in-person the professors received a small implementation grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that kept the online courses going in the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022. They embarked on an extensive study to compare student performance in the online and face-to-face versions of the chemistry labs.
In the Gen Chem I course, where students in both modalities used the same curriculum, the practical final exam scores revealed that all students, regardless of the modality in which they completed the course, mastered the basic lab skills. Surprisingly, students in the year of the study had higher average grades in the online chemistry courses and performance was even more pronounced among first-generation college students in the sections taught by the same instructors in the same time slots.
The professors kick off the courses with a team-building activity, so students can meet one another before beginning to collaborate. “Working from their homes, each student has to do the entire experiment (rather than working in teams in-person), deepening their learning and producing larger data sets to draw conclusions,” Trufan added.
“It was the environment,” Trufan said. “We are a commuter campus and students who are taking an online course are sometimes saving two hours a week by not having to come into a building. That two hours is enough to write a lab report.” Students with transportation issues or who were sick could also make up the work at their convenience.
Seeing the potential with more OER—especially one that builds rigorous resources with emphasis on accessibility for students of all abilities—the professors applied for the Open Textbook Pilot grant. With the federal funding, more experiments will be professionally recorded and accessibility technology (transcripts, translations, audio descriptions), often the costliest feature in content creation, will be integrated as an essential feature rather than an add-on.
They are also engaging others. Faculty in the math department and science writing are developing supporting resources for science learning. Professors from Houston Community College with prior OER experience are developing and adopting additional experiments. Chemistry lab accessibility expert Bryan Shaw from Baylor University provides advice on protocols and helps test them. Some videos have been recorded in Spanish to further expand the audience—and YouTube subtitles provide the potential for translation in other languages.
The three-year grant is projected to allow the team to produce about 25 new experiments in the first year and reach at least 200 students per semester first in the Gen Chem courses, and soon other chemistry labs. The content will be openly licensed to enable the reach to help students on Houston campuses and beyond.