v31#1 A System-wide OER Initiative: The SUNY OER Initiative

by | Apr 12, 2019 | 0 comments

by Mark McBride  (Library Senior Strategist, SUNY Office of Library and Information Services)  

Similar to other colleges and universities, for students at the State University of New York (SUNY), cost of textbooks can be expensive.  SUNY is the largest comprehensive university system in the United States.  With 64 institutions, including research universities, academic medical centers, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, colleges of technology, and an online learning network, SUNY serves a diverse student demographic of over 430,000 undergraduates and graduates: 57% White, 13% Hispanic, 11% Black/African American, 6% Asian/Pacific Islander, 5% non-resident alien, 3% multi-race, 5% unknown, and less than 1% other.

To help reduce the costs of education, several SUNY community colleges began to explore the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) as a replacement to traditional course materials.  OER are typically licensed using a license model from the Creative Commons.  These licenses legally allow anyone to customize and change the content for their own teaching and learning situation.  An education resource is considered OER if the content has an appropriate license that permits reuse, alteration, redistribution and is freely accessible.  This is distinctive to content that is just free. Content that is free and that has not been openly licensed is considered copyrighted. Copyrighted materials can not be customized or changed.

OER usage in SUNY became mostly apparent through SUNY’s Innovative Instruction Technology Grants (IITG), a competitive grant program designed to encourage the development of innovative projects in the college classroom.  In addition to incubating promising, innovative projects, IITG required all projects coming out of the grant program to be openly licensed, with the hope that the openness would foster sharing and collaboration among SUNY faculty and staff.

In 2012, SUNY IITG funded the creation of Open SUNY Textbook Project.  This open publishing initiative, established by SUNY Geneseo’s Milne Library and involving several SUNY libraries, provided faculty with the vehicle to create open textbooks.  The initial response from SUNY faculty was encouraging because the number of requests that came in to create open textbooks surpassed the capacity of the project team.  What was truly inspirational, were the number of college instructors that reached out to the project team, seeking existing OER. At the time, SUNY had no real response but to direct faculty to the myriad of OER repositories available on the web.  But a seed had been planted and some began to believe OER could be an innovation that could be scaled across the system.

In June 2016, five SUNY community colleges were awarded a grant through Achieving the Dream to develop OER degree programs on their campus.  Building off the momentum and effort of many of our community colleges, and the work of the Open SUNY Textbook Project at Geneseo, the Provost Office at SUNY System Administration established a shared service, the SUNY OER Services (SOS).  Through a partnership with the Lumen Learning, SUNY launched SOS as a vehicle to support the growing demand for OER in SUNY.  SOS was built to support OER adoption, adaptation and creation.  SUNY OER Services provides mentoring, technical support, and access to a broad catalog of OE at oer.suny.edu.

The early adopters of OER in SUNY, particularly our faculty, instructional designers, and librarians, advocated for OER adoption at their campuses, and while the initial message was mainly focused on saving students money, several faculty commented on witnessing an overall improvement in students’ academic performance in their classes.  Particularly, they spoke of modest improvement in grades and in the overall retention in their classes where they implemented OER. Not surprisingly, this caught the attention of many SUNY campuses.  

Further, it became apparent in SUNY that the libraries were going to stand up and provide leadership on many of our campuses and across the system.  Similar to students, libraries felt they have been priced out of the marketplace by many of the commercial vendors.  Libraries have also for years tried to supplement student textbook needs by standing up reserve programs where the materials could be borrowed for a specific amount of time (2-4 hours) for use within our libraries.  Textbook reserve programs are incredibly popular with students, but the question remains how effective of a service are textbook reserves if we can only provide access to a small number of people at one time. OER was a welcome solution most SUNY libraries embraced.

In 2017, New York State announced a $4 million investment in OER which helped to expand SUNY’s OER efforts.  In response, SUNY issued a call to institutions to commit to the adoption of OER.  With the goal of saving students money, and the hope of improving the overall academic performance of SUNY students, many of our campuses agreed to adopt OER in their high enrollment, general education courses.  The funding for OER was restored again for 2018, and to date, SUNY institutions have saved more than 153,000 students in NYS, more than $15.8 million in two years.

Some research suggests that OER could have a positive impact when used as a replacement for traditional course materials.  For example, there are studies on the impact OER has had on student grades and class completion (Hilton III, J. L., Gaudet, D., Clark, P., Robinson, J., & Wiley, D. 2013; Allen, G., Guzman-Alvarez, A., Smith, A., Gamage, A., Molinaro, M., & Larsen, D. S. 2015;  Fischer, Hilton, Robinson, & Wiley, 2015). This was mentioned as an experience some of our SUNY faculty found in their own classes.  Many conclude that the reason for these improvements is due to the fact that all students now have access to their course materials.  That may be true, but it seems unlikely that the only reason for these improvement is due to access to course materials. In fact, many of our SUNY faculty have commented that the real benefit of OER is that it allows the faculty member to easily make changes to the materials, allowing them to individualize the learning experience for the students in their classes.  This level of faculty engagement with the materials must translate to deeper engagement with their students.

Much of the educational materials used in teaching and learning have been copyrighted and publishers traditionally hold the rights to the materials.  OER have been licensed which gives them distinctive attributes that are referred to as the 5Rs (Wiley, 2015; Duse, Duse, & Bonnano, 2017).

  • Retain Creators retain the rights to the OER and with these rights they make it acceptable for people to take and control copies of the OER, provided they give proper attribution to the creator.
  • Reuse Anyone has the right to use the OER, and how the OER is used is not determined by the creator but determined by the users of the OER because the license grants permissions for anyone to use.
  • Revise Anyone has the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the OER to suit their needs.
  • Remix Anyone has the right to combine existing OER content with other existing OER content leading to the creation of a new OER.
  • Redistribute Creators license their work to share, allowing the users’ to make revisions and remix with other OER.  An OER that has been created is redistributed to the community with the understanding that the OER they created could be revised and remixed by other users.

The 5Rs are what make OER powerfully innovative.

There is research on the impact that OER adoption has had on student retention.  A 2015 study on the impact of OER indicated that students who used OER instead of traditional materials tended to have higher grades, and fewer students withdrew from the class compared to students in courses that did not have access to OER.  Similar results were found in another research study conducted that compared students in two biology classes (Fisher et al, 2015). The students who were assigned OER earned better grades and were more likely to persist through the entirety of the class than students who were given the traditional course materials.  One could conclude that grades increasing and student persistence are indicators that OER may have a direct impact on student academic achievement, but this should be tracked over several semesters. None the less, very promising.

Further, if the ability to customize OER is the real benefit of OER in the eyes of many faculty, and these faculty take full advantage of their ability to customize these resources, the result will be deeper engagement with their students.  I believe this could lead to an increase in retention. The more engaged a faculty member, the more engaged the students.

Many traditional commercial publishers have made a pivot to offer OER, but most have dramatically decreased their costs and have started to offer a package they call inclusive access.  They are banking on lowering prices to compete with OER, but the materials are still copyrighted and therefore, can not be customized by instructors. They lower the price and that’s a wonderful thing, but a skeptic may say, “what took you so long?”  OER is more than a cost savings solution. OER empowers faculty to make the necessary changes to course materials they want their students to engage with. For years faculty have done this, but OER simplifies the process and provides a license that makes the ability to alter resources legally acceptable.  Many faculty are using OER as a vehicle to change the way their students interact with the content, even by creating OER for the course.

More research is needed to truly understand the advantages to using OER, but many faculty are beginning to believe the real advantage to using OER may not just be the student savings.  The benefits may be the ability to customize these resources (i.e., engage with the 5Rs), resulting in deeper engagement for our faculty with their students and improving the overall learning experience for our learners.  


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