Adopting Open Educational Resources (OER) Appears to Improve Students’ Grades

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According to an Inside Higher Education article, a large-scale study at the University of Georgia has found that college students provided with free course materials at the beginning of a class get significantly better academic results than those that do not.

The Georgia study compared the final grades of students enrolled in eight large undergraduate courses between 2010 and 2016. Each of these courses was taught by a professor who switched from a commercial textbook costing $100 or more to a free digital textbook, or open educational resource, at some point during that six-year period.

The research article concludes with this paragraph (emphasis added):

This research suggests OER is an equity strategy for higher education: providing all students with access to course materials on the first day of class serves to level the academic playing field in course settings. While additional disaggregated research is needed in a variety of postsecondary contexts such as community college, HBCU, and other higher education settings to increase the generalizability of this notion, this study provides an empirical foundation on which to begin to change the advocacy narrative supporting OER. A new opportunity appears to be present for institutions in higher education to consider how to leverage OER to address completion, quality, and affordability challenges, especially those institutions that have higher percentages of Pell eligible, underserved, and/or part-time students than the institution presented in this study.

The quality and value of OER is neither consistent nor universal. However, as this study demonstrates, evidence is mounting that the value of OER is increasing and may offer quantitative and qualitative advantages over higher-cost texts. It’s certainly possible that deficiencies or drawbacks in OER may spur improved pedagogy to address those gaps, which may reflect less on the resource and more on the teaching.

One of the major benefits of OER is that updates and additions can be made at any time by any one; as Wikipedia demonstrates, crowdsourcing may result in momentary inaccuracies, but may also result in quick fixes and updates. As a result, new editions of OER texts may be released on the fly, and those improvements, spurred by teachers identifying gaps, may well result in superior products over the long run.

CoP Note: UR is part of an OER initiative. Learn more in the UR Library’s OER RefGuide. Consider whether an OER might work in your class, and review the vast array of resources and texts available. If the experience at University of Georgia is an indication, OER might contribute to increased access for SPCS students who struggle paying the cost of textbooks, or who take out loans to cover textbook costs.

Incidentally, I’ve reviewed and used excerpts from an OER, Technical Writing, in ENGL 202U. I’ll be adopting the text extensively in a fall 2018 selected topics class, ENGL 398U ST: Business & Professional Writing. Since I reviewed the text in 2017, new sections and chapters have been added to the text; changes are extensive and frequent enough that I need to review my assignments each semester to ensure the chapters and sections have not been revised, added, removed, or split. While the text isn’t up to the standards of a wonderful printed textbook, Technical Communication (12th ed.) by Markel & Selber, I simply can’t justify the $100+ price tag for the printed text. I regret that I’m not teaching from the printed text, but I know I can make up for the quality gap with additional readings that are freely available through educational use.

Daniel Hocutt

Web Manager and Adjunct Professor of English for the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies.