Every Learner Everywhere
Achieving the Dream

How OER Can Support Equity Practices in Higher Education: Lessons From a 3-Year Study

Integrating Open Educational Resources (OER) into college and university courses can provide tangible benefits to students, faculty, and institutions. But more importantly, OER can help support efforts to make equity a part of institutional culture.

What are OER?

Most OER start out in digital form. They include online textbooks, online journals, videos, audio recordings, transcripts, recorded performances, lab experiments, manuals, exams, question banks, packaged lessons (sometimes called digital learning objects), syllabi, and entire courses. They can be used in both in-person and online learning modalities and can be incorporated with digital learning tools such as adaptive learning courseware. Organizations like Achieving the Dream have even explored how entire degree programs can be designed around OER.

How open educational resources differ from traditional course materials is that they are licensed to open up broader usage and adaptation, whereas traditional commercial publishing restricts how the buyer can use a book or other material. OER authors typically use one of six Creative Commons licenses to give other users permission to reuse and repurpose the original work. The permissions on those licenses range from “use and share, but don’t change” (least open) to “remix and adapt all you want” (most open).

To picture OER, says Richard Sebastian, Director of Open and Digital Learning at Achieving the Dream, “Suppose I write a biology textbook. It’s my work, copyrighted under my name, and I’ve been teaching with it for years. One day I decide I want to share it with the world, for free. I pick the open license that works best for me — say a CC-By license — digitally mark the textbook with the license, and then share it in some public way. It is now an open educational resource.”

Assuming Sebastian used the most open form of the Creative Commons licenses, now anyone else has permission to reuse or adapt that textbook, which would be less expensive than using a commercial publication and less time consuming than creating their own OER from scratch. Faculty might upload individual chapters into the LMS for their course, or students might use sections of it in a creative project or create a new version of the textbook that incorporates their experiences and learning.

OER to support culturally responsive pedagogy

There are many ways a class can use OER to support a culturally responsive approach to teaching and learning. However, Sebastian says, “Just because a resource is open doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unbiased. You might find a great OER textbook that you want to use but there’s a problematic chapter. Or there’s an angle to it or a bias to it that you can work on with your students.”

For example, a history professor could assign students creative and research projects on a theme or topic in the course. Using an OER textbook, the students might create addenda. Students in later semesters would then be able to read those articles that they continue commenting on and adding to.

“The students are adding context or changing perspectives about something missing,” Sebastian says. “That’s the superpower of OER in this case.”

What are ways OER support equity?

Sebastian says that when Achieving the Dream conducted a three-year study on the usage of OER, they found multiple benefits that accrue to students, faculty, and institutions that are committed to equity.

More affordable is more accessible: For students, OER provide an affordable alternative to expensive textbooks that can be a deterrent to a student taking a particular course.

Cost savings creates more opportunity for institutions: Achieving the Dream’s research project showed that course development costs are lower with OER.

Cost savings creates more opportunity for students: Achieving the Dream also discovered that students who had encountered OER in one course reinvested the money they saved into taking additional courses.

Continuous improvement advances equity: OER allow faculty more flexibility than with a commercial publisher’s textbook. If something isn’t working in an open resource — either because it is incomplete, out of date, not culturally responsive, or just not optimally aligned with the course goals and its assessments — faculty can change or add to the text instead of assigning more expensive books to fill in a gap.

More flexibility supports better teaching practices: OER can enable evidence-based teaching practices such as mapping content to outcomes, active learning, formative practice, activities to support meta-cognition and agency, and creating a sense of belonging to an inclusive learning environment. “Because the material is flexible, you can plan ways for students to have agency with it,” Sebastian says.

Challenges to implementing OER

Discoverability: It can be overwhelming to search through the available OER. There are well-respected repositories, but many others are poorly maintained. Without curation or a vetting process, interested faculty can be discouraged when attempting to find what they need for their courses.

Adapting it takes time: Faculty rarely find open resources that are ideally suited to their course. “There’s always some kind of adaptation that needs to happen to fit it to your course,” Sebastian says. “You can customize it, but it takes time to do that.”

Fewer features: Most OER are standalone texts or other pieces of content, while commercially published textbooks typically incorporate features like test banks, practice materials, and automatic scoring of assessments. “Those features are hard to give up for many faculty,” Sebastian says.

Working around the challenges to OER

Fortunately, faculty who have pioneered the use of OER have developed many approaches that address those challenges.

Partner with your librarian: College and university librarians are often up to date on the available OER and how to curate them, and they can recommend high-quality materials. They will also help you navigate respected repositories of material such as OpenStax.

Peer learning: Sebastian says there’s no need to reinvent  the wheel when it comes to implementing OER. Tap into communities like the Community College Consortium of OER to learn from peers.

Institutional support: The potential lower costs described earlier will only be possible if institutions support faculty development activities centered on OER. In addition to course development stipends, this can include budgeting librarian or instructional designer time to support faculty.

Advancing equity with OER

Sebastian says OER are becoming a more established part of college and university courses and that digital learning platforms are integrating it. Increasingly, he adds, faculty recognize the importance of using OER to support culturally responsive teaching and other teaching practices that promote equity. It has the potential to support students seeing themselves in the subject they’re learning and to remove other barriers to learning.

Learn more in the webinar A Course Redesign Project: Personalized Adaptive Learning and OER Content