I appreciate Stephen Downes take on OER – that there should be “no significant difference” between classes taught with OER or commercial text as far as outcomes go. I got into education to see that happen. The impact that I have measured in the past is grades, completion rates, and student satisfaction. I completely respect and value his definition of impact, and it would take a very deep longitudinal study to track that. In the community colleges I have worked at, we have had some more immediate problems to solve. There are five areas where OER and open textbooks are critical to the success of community college students:
Most of our students are working. Money is a huge issue. It should not be this way but it is. It is barbaric that the richest society on the planet can’t take care of health care or education, but that is where we are. The state of Washington has one of the highest homeless populations among its students. There are 40,000 homeless students in Washington. And a study came out that said that across the U.S., 14% of the college students are homeless. How are students supposed to learn, let alone have a transformative experience when they are worried about the next meal or where they are going to sleep? Eliminating the cost of textbooks is an essential step in solving this problem.
For various reasons, some that the students might be able to control and some they can’t, financial aide is often late. This means that students who are on financial aide are often two weeks behind in the reading. This just adds to the stress of being in college. Yes, we can put books on reserve in the library, but it is not the same experience as having access to a text when work schedules and transportation allows.
Relevance and Corrections
Students are often paying for books, resources, and at least chapters that are redundant with other classes that they will not use. Also, if there are errors in the books, we often have to wait two years, or what ever the publication cycle is, to get corrected texts. With OERs, faculty and students can customize the texts and make corrections instantly.
Even better than making corrections, I have had the honor of working with a class where the students created the text. The assignments in the Communications class were designed to update the text and keep it relevant for the next class. The students had real ownership of the learning and often were available to help the next iteration of students work on the text (which was a wiki).
Each semester, I would survey the students to have them talk about their experiences with the courses and learning materials. The open text book classes always had a greater student satisfaction because the students had immediate access to the materials (sometimes before they even enrolled in the course), the materials were always relevant, and they appreciated the lower cost.
Often the research around OERs is performed at colleges where the students do not have the financial concerns, are highly motivated, and are not under the stress that community college students find themselves. I would find it very easy to believe that for students at MIT or Stanford, there would be no significant difference, but for students in the community colleges, it is all the difference in the world.