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Multi-institutional OER Degree Collaboration


Austin Community College (ACC) is the lead for the Texas consortium of four colleges awarded an Achieving the Dream OER Degree Initiative grant in June 2016.  The four colleges are jointly developing two degrees: an Associate of Arts and Associate of Science in General Studies. Findings from the Spring 2017 term indicate that Austin Community College students enrolled in courses using OER are doing at least as well and sometimes better than students using traditional publisher textbooks.  Results for Fall 2017 are still being tabulated. As a research partner in the OER Degree Initiative grant, ACC is also providing data to determine if student persistence is impacted by enrollment in courses that use OER. Detailed findings from the study are due out in 2019.

Authors: Dr. Gaye Lynn Scott, Associate Vice President, Academic Programs; Associate Professor Carrie Gits, Head Librarian, Highland Campus

Published on March 13, 2018

How It Began

In the Spring of 2016 the leadership of Austin Community College (ACC) decided to apply for a grant from Achieving the Dream that would support OER course development for an entire associate degree.  Discussions expanded to include other Texas community colleges in a partnership that we call the Texas Consortium (Alamo Colleges, ACC, El Paso Community College, and San Jacinto College). The Texas Consortium agreed to develop a grant application focused on traditional core curriculum courses in two degrees:  the Associate of Arts and the Associate of Science in General Studies. ACC’s decade-long focus on access, persistence, and completion in the context of success equity provided the motivation for our leading role in the grant application. In the Fall 2016 semester 9,543 students had a General Studies declared major out of 41,871 total students.  Building an OER degree pathway that would serve thousands of our students was an enticing idea in the midst of our Pathways redesign work to ensure the success of all our students. ACC proposed to develop nine of 24 courses in the grant application, and the other colleges came on board to develop the remaining 15 courses.

The grant – as with all grants – has an aggressive timeline, an underfunded budget, and overworked (but enthusiastic) grant leaders at each institution.  After attending the initial grant convening in the summer of 2016, the faculty and leadership at the Texas Consortium colleges set to work. We developed “job descriptions” for faculty OER course developers and faculty OER course reviewers.  We established a general approach in which faculty members at one college would adopt, adapt, or develop the OER course materials while faculty at the other three colleges would then review the materials and pilot them in the classroom. The development work included support from Lumen Learning as well as the college’s instructional designers and librarians.  In the Spring 2017 semester, faculty at ACC launched 29 sections of 11 courses taught on campus with OER, saving 936 students approximately $90,000 in costs for course materials. In the Fall 2017 semester, we rolled out 10 additional courses and had an enrollment of 3156 students in OER sections. In the Spring 2018 semester we added two more courses, and enrollment in OER sections topped 5200 students in 197 sections of both grant-funded and non-grant-funded OER courses.

Early results suggest that students in our Spring 2017 OER classes did as well as – and in some cases slightly better than – students in classes taught with proprietary textbooks.  Results for Fall 2017 sections are being tabulated, and we expect to see similar good results.

Challenges Early On:  Recruiting and Training Faculty

The first challenge was to thoughtfully – and quickly – recruit faculty to participate in the work of the OER Degree Initiative grant.  A faculty application was developed that included information about the courses to be developed, the roles and expectations of course reviewers and course developers, and the compensation to be provided (release time or a stipend).  Faculty were asked to respond to several questions on the application, most importantly to describe their teaching philosophy and how it supports their interest in developing or reviewing OERs. Faculty applicants also had to ensure that their department chairs approved their application.

Once recruited, faculty had to be trained on the world of OER – Creative Commons licensing, compliance with ADA, working with our librarians and instructional designers, interfacing with the Lumen Learning platform, and so forth.  Designating and staffing our pilot sections had to be attended to, and communication with our partner colleges had to be robust in order to share courses as they were being developed.

Challenges Mid-Stream:  Logistics and Communication

Launching at least one OER section of 24 different courses in 18 months at a very large, urban, 12-campus college is an interesting undertaking.  It requires communication, patience, fortitude, more patience, and a little nagging. It also requires thinking about how to “tag” OER sections in the Student Information System, which means developing a system for tracking OER sections taught in more than a dozen different departments (Google sheets, anyone?).  Processes had to be invented and course schedule notes have to be entered each semester so that students and advisors know which sections are being taught with OER. Advisors must be made aware of the world of OER and the benefits to students, and students must learn how to search for OER sections in Student Planning.  In all these things, communication is key.

Challenges Going Forward

ACC is a research partner in the grant, supporting a quasi-experimental research design to examine the effectiveness of a “treatment” of at least four OER classes on student persistence, retention, and completion.  We are excited to see the results of this research study that will be released in 2019. In the meantime, our challenges going forward will revolve around two key things. First, we must build the appropriate infrastructure to sustain and grow our OER course offerings and our OER degree offerings.  And second, we must continue to work with faculty to communicate the academic and pedagogical value of OER.

Our experience to date in the grant-funded courses has been that there is broad adoption of open educational resources in some disciplines, and very limited adoption in other disciplines.  Faculty members choose their course materials, and those choices reflect a variety of concerns. Academic rigor, pedagogical approach, theoretical underpinnings, publishers’ ancillaries, cost to students, and availability of adaptive learning resources are just some of their concerns.  Finding early adopters who will preach the OER gospel to their colleagues is the key to spreading the use of quality OER. This can’t be driven by administrative dictates or grant funds, it must occur organically at the faculty level. And if we have an infrastructure in place to support faculty interest in OER (e.g., dedicated instructional designers and librarians, an OER lead faculty member, etc.) then we will continue to expand and sustain our OER work.

OER Degree Implementation

In Fall 2018, a little more than two years removed from the grant kick-off meeting in June 2016, ACC will trumpet the development of two OER degree pathways:  the Associate of Arts in General Studies and the Associate of Science in General Studies. Interest in OER has grown, but there is much work left to do. Many faculty members are still unaware of the possibilities of open educational resources for engaging their students in the course material on the very first day of class (along with saving their students money).  As this case study is being written, a faculty work group is developing recommendations for OER policy guidelines, best practices, necessary resources, and sustainability. In addition, ACC faculty are already hard at work – in a consortium with several other Texas colleges – on a certificate in Accounting that will be an OER pathway for students. We want to look at other degree plans that could be converted into OER degrees, but we must address the institutional need to provide clear systems, supports, and processes for the adoption and/or adaptation of OER course materials.   The Achieving the Dream OER Degree Initiative grant was the spur for ACC’s focus on the possibilities and benefits of open educational resources, and the foundation has been laid for the OER work yet to come.

College Overview

Founded in 1973 with a mission to provide access to an affordable, quality college education to anyone who seeks it, today Austin Community College (ACC) is the primary gateway to higher education and career training in Central Texas.   It serves more than 86,000 students per year through its credit programs and the Continuing Education Division. Among the largest two-year colleges in Texas, ACC offers over 100 fields of study in its 8 county service area spanned over 11 campuses and is a leader in university transfers.

Austin Community College (ACC) At-a-Glance: