Jasmine Roberts, a professor of communications at The Ohio State University, has a story to tell about how she ended up adopting open educational resources for her courses. It was, for her, a way to establish the Golden Rule: she did not want to treat her students the way she herself had been treated as an undergraduate.

“When I spoke to one of my own professors about the cost of course materials, his response was, ‘If you can afford tuition, you can afford $120 for a textbook.’” It was a show of indifference to her personal situation, one she remembered years later when the time came to assign readings for her own courses. “Professionally speaking, I didn’t think it was good use of my students’ time and money to buy a 16-chapter textbook, especially if I’d only be assigning half the book,” she says.

So she turned to open educational resources, or OER—openly licenced, freely accessible, online textbooks and course content. When she discovered that no one had yet written an OER textbook for her area of expertise—professional communication—she applied for a grant to write it herself. Her book Writing for Strategic Communications Industries, published last year by The Ohio State University Libraries, is now available through most online OER libraries. And it’s free of charge to her students.

Professor Roberts told her story as part of a panel discussion at the Engage 2018 conference hosted by Top Hat in Chicago on October 26–27. The panel was titled “Making Space for Faculty in the OER Movement,” and aptly so: Roberts is part of a small but fast-growing wave of faculty members who are turning to OER.

According to a study by Babson Survey Research Group, the number of faculty members at two-year and four-year institutions who use OER as classroom textbooks grew from 5 percent in 2015–16 to 9 percent in 2016–17. “That proportion is still small, but the growth is significant,” says Doug Lederman, the panel’s moderator and the editor of Inside Higher Ed, adding that OER appears poised to make important inroads in the textbook market. “Student affordability is driving it. Institutions are starting to support it. And governments are starting to fund it.”

“They’d buy older editions, they’d look up Khan Academy videos, you name it”

“OER is an innovation that is very much of-the-moment,” explains Lederman. “Right now in higher education there is pressure to make curricular materials less expensive. But there is also a hope that the technology will have a pedagogical effect.” Multiple studies have shown that many students avoid textbook purchases due to cost. One recent study, commissioned by e-textbook provider VitalSource and conducted by Wakefield Research, found that 85 percent of students delayed or altogether avoided textbook purchases, with 91 percent of them citing cost as the reason—and half of them saying their grades suffered as a result.

Blake Regan, a professor of mathematics at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology, is intimately familiar with this phenomenon, especially among freshmen in his precalculus, calculus and statistics courses. “Students simply weren’t purchasing the textbooks we were assigning,” he told the 200-odd faculty who attended the panel discussion. “They’d buy older editions, they’d look up Khan Academy videos, you name it.” He and a colleague received a grant to participate in the university’s Student Mathematics Resource and Textbook (SMaRT) project, and set about creating their own online, open textbook for precalculus students.

What followed, says Regan, was many months of work. “We created every bit of material, and we used the grant money to purchase the software we needed,” he says. But the results were worth it: student outcomes on Regan’s pre-calculus exam are 10 to 18 percent higher with the online material.

“The fact that I wrote it makes an impression upon students,” says Regan. “They know that I care and that I want them to care, so my role as author is good in that sense. I’ve even had students push this down to their high-school teachers and homeschoolers, because they think it can help students before they get to university.”

Blake Regan, professor of mathematics at Ohio University. “The fact that I wrote [the textbook] makes an impression upon students.”

At Ohio State, says Roberts, student surveys about OER have shown that 66 percent of students found OER textbooks more helpful than traditional textbooks, and 70 percent of students felt the quality of OER materials was better. “They love that it’s free and they relate to it better because of the technology,” says Roberts.

Ohio is one of a number of states whose legislatures and institutions are trying to encourage more faculty to write and adopt OER. Both Ohio State and Ohio Dominican universities are part of the Ohio Open Ed Collaborative, formed last year with a state grant of $1.3 million to develop OER materials for 22 courses.

Many of the state’s institutions also have their own initiatives in place. Ohio University, for instance, is offering its faculty a financial incentive: adopt OER for your course, get a cheque for $500. “By the time they instituted the incentive I was already using OER in my course. I tried to give the money back but they wouldn’t take it,” says Regan.

Roberts likes the fact that her textbook is easier to update than traditional textbooks. “I had a student provide me with an excellent real-life example that was culturally sensitive for a chapter in my textbook,” she says. “I think we need more cultural sensitivity in our textbooks, and I was able to include it right away.” Roberts also points out that OER makes authorship so much more accessible to a broader range of faculty than traditional textbook publishing. “Most textbooks today are being written by cisgender white men,” she says. “I think OER will be good for marginalized voices.”

The panel also disagreed with the common perception, which lingers mostly among faculty rather than students, that OER materials are poor quality because they aren’t peer reviewed. “OER is the very definition of peer review,” said Lederman. “There may not be the kind of peer review teams you’d expect, but with OER you have thousands of readers and users and faculty who contribute and iterate and edit the material.”

And as for the often-held perception that OER quality is poor because the materials are free, Roberts says simply, “Price is a poor gauge of quality. Just ask me about my designer shoes.”

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