Open educational resources (OERs), which are licensed as freely available for people to use and repurpose, have become a driving force as the education sector looks to reduce costs. OERs are associated with numerous benefits for students, including savings of an average of $128 per course, higher course grades, and greater likelihood of course completion. As a recent Ithaka S+R case study highlighted, the University of Maryland, University College (UMUC) implemented an OER program that saved students an estimated $17 million in its first year. And at last year’s Next Wave conference, Monroe Community College Library’s Mark McBride called on librarians to help their institutions reduce costs for students by building repositories of Open Educational Resources that support the curriculum. These benefits may be particularly salient for institutions looking to improve outcomes for low-income students, who likely struggle the most with textbook costs. Large philanthropies, such as the Hewlett Foundation, have devoted extensive funding toward the development and proliferation of OERs. And yet, despite documented success and available funding, postsecondary faculty have been slow to incorporate OERs in their courses on their own. According to a 2016 Babson Survey, at the postsecondary level, only 5.3 percent of courses use openly licensed materials. Further, only 25.6 percent of faculty surveyed said they were “aware” or “very aware” of OERs.

For the past two years, I worked on the development of OERs in K-12 education. As the movement ramped up, it was exciting to be at the forefront, considering questions of costs and quality. I gained some important insights from this experience that are also applicable for the development and adoption of OERs in higher education. Some of the lessons are:

  1. OERs are “free like a puppy.” As Open Up Resources helps explain, even free resources come with costs, just like a free puppy would. For higher education institutions considering the implementation of an OER program, funds and time should be allocated toward training and professional development for using the resources. Faculty may need to redesign existing courses, especially if they had centered instruction on a specific textbook (potentially to justify the textbook’s cost!). In addition, institutions should consider the technologies and/or printing capabilities they might make available to students. K-12 districts are often taken aback by printing costs for OERs, which carry a hefty, but necessary, price tag for districts that don’t have extensive digital options. The same may apply to OERs at the postsecondary level. And finally, if an institution is considering funding the creation of openly available resources, they must also be prepared to support the maintenance and upkeep required to ensure materials remain high-quality. Just as textbook publishers put out new editions, OERs will need to adapt over time, and a one-time-creation budget is not sufficient.
  2. Quality matters. As is true with textbooks, all openly available resources are not created equal. An institution should maintain high quality standards when considering which OERs to adopt or creating their own. At the K-12 level, districts have begun devoting specific offices or individuals to the task of selecting high-quality materials for students. Postsecondary institutions should also develop specific processes and resources for ensuring quality, perhaps in the form of a dedicated office or guidelines and rubrics for faculty. Institutions should be sure to understand the requirements, if any, for uploading resources to an OER database, and should establish clear quality standards if developing its own institution-specific OER repository. OER quality rubrics from organizations like Achieve target K-12, but are freely available and may be a good place to start.
  3. Raise awareness and share best practices. The OER movement has gained momentum in K-12 education, in large part due to increased awareness and the formation of a true OER community. In 2015, the Department of Education launched a #GoOpen campaign to encourage states and K-12 districts to use OERs. Districts pledged to join the #GoOpen mission, committing to replacing textbooks with openly available materials. Since its inception, 20 states and more than 110 districts have joined the #GoOpen campaign. This federally-initiated campaign has become a source of support and information for districts, schools, and teachers considering the adoption of OERs. The higher education community could benefit from a similar campaign to spread awareness and the sharing of best practices regarding OERs. The Achieving the Dream initiative is a step in the right direction, bringing together 38 community colleges, including five SUNY schools, in a commitment to using high quality OERs. But, as many states and institutions are taking it upon themselves to bolster their use of OERs (for example, see California’s 2013 plan to give $5 million to state universities to establish an OER council, or New York’s 2017 plan to put $8 million toward OERs in the CUNY and SUNY systems), additional opportunities to work across states and institutions would be valuable, as well.

As the OER movement begins to thrive in K-12 education, the next generation of students will be entering college with not only a familiarity, but in many cases an expectation, of high-quality, openly available resources. If postsecondary institutions can work together, plan for associated costs, and maintain quality standards to strengthen the OER movement, they can anticipate numerous benefits for their students in return.