• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


OER and Obstacles to Adoption

How the new federal funds could help.

March 28, 2018

I’ve never heard a student or professor complain that a book didn’t cost enough. Complaints about textbook costs have been around at least since the 80’s, and probably before that  I know because I remember making them myself.

And yet, adoption of OER has been slower than many of us had hoped.  

I bring this up because the newly-passed federal omnibus budget bill includes $5 million to support OER. It doesn’t do much to define how that support will work, though.

In my own experience, I’ve seen and heard a few consistent reasons that faculty cite to explain their reluctance to move towards OER. If the new money could be targeted to some of those, we might actually make some headway.

Supplemental Materials. This is especially pertinent in math and science fields, where textbooks often include problem sets.  The expository part of the textbook is, in many ways, the easy part. The ancillary materials often close the sale.

Faculty Time. Many community colleges, including my own, have a 15 credit teaching load per semester for full-time faculty. Some go even higher. Cobbling together a good course using nothing but OER often requires considerable time spent on finding and evaluating materials. When time it at a premium, and stipends for course development don’t reflect the time it actually takes, it can be a tough sell. If the supplemental materials have to be continually refreshed each year, the issue is compounded.

Concerns About Transfer. I suspect these are often overblown or outdated, but I still hear intimations that courses that don’t use the same commercial textbook as their counterparts at four-year schools won’t get transfer credit. My sense of it is that any course with the same student learning outcomes should be fine, but I can’t prove a negative.

Fears of Standardization. This one took me a while to understand. While some departments adopt common texts across every section of a given course, many define academic freedom (incorrectly) entirely at the individual level.  They believe strongly that every professor should be able to pick her own texts, regardless of what her peers in other sections of the same course are doing. In this model, an entire department could move to OER only through unanimous consent, which is to say, very rarely.

In some ways, of course, the fear is exactly backwards. I’d rather have faculty actively (and collaboratively) engaged in developing their own stuff than in adopting the latest Pearson or McGraw Hill package wholesale. To my mind, Pearson is a far greater source of standardization than OER could ever be. But the locus of control matters.

Ironically enough, departments that _do_ adopt common texts can also be reluctant to move to OER, because it seems radical enough that they’d prefer to “pilot” it, but their own rules prevent piloting.  

Concerns about Quality. OER materials have improved markedly in the last several years.  That said, it’s still true that quality varies across fields.

Concerns about Sustainability. If nobody is making money, I’ve been asked, how do we know the material will be kept up to date?  Whose job is that? Yes, we routinely and rightly excoriate commercial publishers for trivial “updates” designed largely to short-circuit the used book market, but there’s also such a thing as obsolescence.  Some level of reliable updating is crucial.

$5 million falls far short of being enough to address all of these on a national scale, but it could provide some help in a few areas.  For example, if we were to pick a few of the highest enrollment gen ed courses nationally -- Intro to Psych, say, or Intro to Stats -- it wouldn’t be that hard to fund development of multiple textbooks and rich troves of ancillary materials matching each. Over time, the top ten or twenty gen eds could be put in some sort of rotation; say, five a year get updated. That would simultaneously address concerns around supplemental materials, faculty time, and sustainability. It could even address the concerns around transfer.  Let’s say that in a given year, a federal task force develops/endorses a half-dozen Intro to Psych packages. The burden of proof for disallowing transfer on that basis should be placed on the receiving schools.

It’s a sort of Tuning Project done backwards.  

Alternately, or additionally, we could fund summer workshops in which faculty who actually teach intro courses at community colleges -- I’m thinking both full-time and adjunct -- meet at a given location or two at public expense to hammer out materials.  

Many of these objections are basically solvable, if we choose to make a priority of solving them.  Given the national concerns about student loans and the cost of higher education, we should. At a national level, this is as low-hanging as fruit gets. 

Thank you, Congress, for getting one a little bit right.  I hope now the Department of Education does the right thing.  This could make a material difference for millions of students.


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