Reducing the cost of a college education is a frequent topic in higher education circles, but often the focus is on capping the cost of tuition, or, occasionally, reducing the cost of tuition for students and their families. Some colleges and universities have been trying to find other ways to reduce costs, as well, such as offering online courses during the summer or a regular academic term, for a reduced fee, or using open educational resources (OERs) as an alternative to commercially published textbooks, thereby reducing fees for students.

We were recently on site at the University of Maryland, University College and heard a lot about the success of its OER program and the savings that accrued to students. Such a program has a lot of appeal for pedagogical, as well as financial, reasons. UMUC is exclusively for adult learners, and they are physically located all around the world. It is helpful to the online students to have the materials they need for their courses embedded in the course itself.

At the beginning of the fall semester in 2015, all undergraduate courses began to rely upon open educational resources; students no longer needed to buy textbooks for any of their courses. In the fall of 2016, this program will be extended to graduate courses, as well. In the 2014 pilot program to test this model, UMUC students saved $130,000 in the first semester. UMUC estimates that this initiative will save students millions of dollars, ultimately.

I was especially interested in the process UMUC used in choosing OER materials for their courses. Course redesigns were already underway, led by full-time program chairs.  UMUC has moved away from every instructor teaching his or her course to a focus on the program of study and making sure that the courses build on one another. Thus, the curriculum, scope, and sequence for courses were developed centrally to ensure that all sections have the same learning outcome goals and content. (This is of course much easier to do when courses rely heavily on online content and delivery.)

One important design principle for UMUC is that the resources needed to master the content are embedded in the course itself. Program chairs realized that the best way to do that was to use open educational resources. And the side benefit would be lower costs for individual students. The pedagogical reason for embedding the materials into the courses was to create uniform learning environments for all students, even though many different adjuncts were leading the courses in a geographically dispersed environment. UMUC used the opportunity to help students reduce their costs, while also creating a more coherent educational program.

UMUC chose not to leave this initiative to chance. They invested considerable resources in putting together teams of people to choose the best possible open educational resources to include in the online courses. Subject matter experts (either full time or adjunct faculty), learning technology designers, IT specialists, and librarians were assembled to work on the resources that would go into the courses. It was not enough for the teams to find the OERs. They also had to ensure that the links to the resources were still valid, and they had to make sure that the materials could be incorporated into UMUC’s learning management system. In some cases, they had to search through Creative Commons licenses to find out if digital materials had been made available in that system. Everyone involved recognizes that this is not a task that is once-and-for-all done. The subject teams must constantly refine the list of materials to keep resources current and relevant.

UMUC is working with staff at Creative Commons to find ways to streamline the process. The institution also realizes that it is inefficient for every institution to be searching, validating, and embedding OERs into their online courses. They hope to work with other institutions to create databases of high-quality resources in specific fields.

The University’s decision to use OERs has also necessarily changed support roles in the institution. Librarians, IT specialists, and educational technologists become part of the educational team, and their roles and responsibilities are determined by the curricular needs. Students save money, and educational programs are transformed. It will be interesting to monitor the approach textbook publishers will take if other institutions launch similar programs. We will want to follow this initiative over time to understand what the longer-term effects are, especially as UMUC moves into graduate courses, as well, but the results so far are encouraging.