• Sarah Ancel

OER is a Win for Students, Faculty and Policymakers

Within higher education, structures like institutional autonomy, shared governance, and academic freedom have prevented partisan politics from controlling college classrooms. While, in most cases, these structures successfully insulate higher education institutions from censorship and hegemony, they can also confound the well-intentioned efforts of public officials who are seeking to address broad issues that are not rooted in current controversies.

Take, for example, the issue of textbook prices. Every year, students and families experience this problem acutely as they shell out an average of $1,200 on required course materials. Amid concerns about rapidly rising prices - and the fact that textbook inflation consistently outpaces overall inflation - this problem is even more relevant to the discussions public officials are having with their constituents. But what can these officials do about it? They have no control over which textbooks are required and cannot reasonably expect taxpayers to write a blank check to cover these rising costs through grants or stipends.

Fortunately, West Virginia found a state-level solution to the high cost of textbooks, one that does not thwart academic freedom or balloon the budget. Instead of advancing a mandate, the legislature established a call to action and faculty incentives to adopt Open Education Resources (OER) - an alternative to traditional textbooks that are open-licensed and free to students. The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC), in partnership with Student-Ready Strategies (SRS), took the legislation’s broad charge, designing and funding a faculty mini-grant program to advance this call to action. The program incentivizes faculty to adopt or create OER in one of their courses, and when they do, they receive a $1,000, one-time grant. The approach was built on ideals of concern for students and respect for faculty and academic freedom, and it is turning out to be a win-win-win for state officials, students, and the faculty members themselves.

Why students love it

They get their course materials for free! They also save time that other students spend comparison-shopping, borrowing, or sharing books to keep costs down. And they have equitable access to materials on or before the first day of class. In courses using traditional textbooks, students of color and poverty-affected students are more likely to delay or forego this high-price purchase, making it more difficult for them to perform at the same levels as their more privileged peers.

Participating faculty administered an HEPC survey to students in their OER courses. According to the commission, nine in 10 of these students said it was important that they did not have to purchase textbooks for the class and said they are more likely to take a course with a low-cost option in the future. WIN.

Why faculty love it

Faculty who received incentive grants under this program seized the opportunity because it allowed them to innovate. Faculty grant recipients participate in a community of practice facilitated by SRS, allowing them to continuously improve their approach to using OER. As our team worked with faculty in the community of practice, we have found that they are some of the most innovative, using OER to intentionally include diverse voices, expose students to non-traditional course materials like video and interactive tools, and generally improve student outcomes. And, of course, they receive a $1,000 grant that compensates them for the work required to research, select, and implement the new open course materials.

In an HEPC survey of faculty who received OER grants, 93 percent agree that they plan to convert additional courses to OER in the future, 95 percent agree the OER they used was high-quality, and 96 percent agree that switching to OER was worthwhile. WIN.

Why policymakers love it

First, they created a program that is popular with a myriad constituents, a difficult feat in our increasingly divided political landscape. Beyond that, this program outperforms traditional state grants and Promise programs in terms of return on investment. Think about it this way: With a traditional grant, when the State spends a dollar, a student saves a dollar. That dollar generates savings only for that student and only in that academic term. With the OER program, each dollar spent has generated $4 in student savings, making it four times as effective as simply offsetting the cost of tuition through grants…so far. Since the courses are permanently converted to OER, each one-time investment continues to generate savings for other students who take that course in the future, driving the ROI up further over time.

The OER legislation did not build in a feedback loop for the policymakers themselves, but their continued support for the program indicates that they consider this program a success. Not surprising, given its impact: through three rounds of grants, 117 faculty converted 147 courses to OER, benefitting over 4,000 students, and reducing student cost by an aggregate $620,000. WIN.

The West Virginia OER grant program is a shining example of a policy built on respect for both professionals and precedent. It is a model that should be replicated in every state in the country to bring down the price of college textbooks and learning materials. Beyond that, it should serve as a blueprint for addressing other pressing challenges, particularly in cases where legislative purview is, and should remain, limited. When policymakers solve problems through collaboration and partnership, everybody wins.

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