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Opening the Textbook Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2017, Babson Survey Research Group Report is released under a Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA
Responses from over 2,700 U.S. faculty paint both a “Good news” and a “Bad news” picture for the role of open educational resources (OER) in U.S. higher education. Both sides of the equation are clearly evident in the responses from higher education teaching faculty who had recently selected required curricula materials (primarily textbooks) their course.
The levels of awareness of OER, the licensing tied to it, and overall adoption of OER materials, remains low. Only 10% of faculty reported that they were “Very aware” of open educational resources, with 20% saying that they were “Aware.” Awareness of Creative Commons licensing also remains low, with only 19% of faculty reporting that they are “Very aware.” Measures that combine both dimensions are even lower, with 8% classified as “Very aware” and 17% as “Aware” on a joint measure of OER and of Creative Commons licensing awareness.
Faculty continue to report significant barriers to OER adoption. The most serious issues continue to be the effort needed to find and evaluate suitable material. Nearly one-half of all faculty report that “there are not enough resources for my subject” (47%), and it is “too hard to find what I need” (50%). In light of this, the reported level of adoption of open-licensed textbooks (defined as either public domain or Creative Commons) of only 9% is not a surprise. Many faculty members also voice concerns about the long-term viability of open educational resources, and worry about who will keep the materials current.
That said, there is also considerable cause for optimism among those who support OER. The awareness and adoption levels may be low, but they also show steady year-to-year improvements. For example, the open-licensed textbook adoption rate of 9% for 2016-17 represents a substantial increase over the rate of 5% for 2015-16. Likewise, awareness of both Creative Commons licensing and OER itself has increased each year. OER also addresses a key concern of many faculty: the cost of materials. A majority of faculty classify cost as “Very important” for their selection of required course materials.
Faculty report that their required textbooks have an average price of $97, and only 22% say that they are “Very satisfied” with that cost. It is therefore not surprising that most faculty report that not all of their students buy all the required texts for their class, with only a third saying that 90% or more of their students have purchased the required textbook.
A particular area of OER success is among large enrollment introductory-level courses. These courses touch the largest numbers of students, are often taught in multiple sections (66%), and are typically required for some subset of students (79%). Faculty teaching these courses were presented with a list of the most commonly used commercial textbooks (up to twelve) for their specific course, along with an open text alternative from OpenStax, a non-profit OER publisher based out of Rice University. The rate of adoption of OpenStax textbooks among faculty teaching large enrollment courses is now at 16.5%, a rate which rivals that of most commercial textbooks. This is a substantial increase over the rate observed last year (10.8%). Users of OpenStax textbooks also had levels of satisfaction equal to their peers teaching introductory level courses who had selected commercial textbooks.
These adoptions address concerns about cost as well: faculty who did not select an OpenStax textbook reported an average cost of $125 for the required textbook, while those who did select an OpenStax text reported an average cost of $31.
The OpenStax results among large enrollment introductory-level courses shows that OER can be successful. OpenStax has been able to reach penetration levels equal to most of their commercial competitors, with equal levels of faculty satisfaction, in a very short time. This comes amid continuing concerns on the part of faculty about the limited nature of OER materials, particularly the lack of associated materials like tests, quizzes, and homework assignments, that are typically provided by commercial alternatives.\
The OpenStax model has also successfully addressed another faculty concern: the desire for print over digital. Faculty continue to report that their students prefer printed materials, and OpenStax provides this alternative in addition to a freely distributed digital version. The results show that when you deal directly with the top faculty concerns of finding and evaluating potential OER options, OER can be as successful as commercial alternatives. Open Stax has done this by using an adoption and distribution model that is very similar to that of commercial publishers, with nicely formatted printed copies available for students in their normal bookstore. One lesson from the OpenStax results is that you need to reach individual faculty members in order to be successful. Two-thirds (67%) of all faculty reported that they were the sole decision maker for the new or revised course material, while an additional 22% of faculty engaged in a group decision. Faculty have a well-proven model for selecting their teaching materials, and any new player will have to be successful within that model.
OpenStax’s success is not complete, however. Initial adoption has primarily been among faculty who are willing to embrace new teaching styles, have greater willingness to move away from the traditional lecture style for teaching, and have a higher appreciation for digital materials. It is unclear if faculty with more traditional approaches, or greater reliance on associated materials, will follow in the same numbers. It is also not clear if the OpenStax model will work outside of large enrollment classes. A mature OER distribution channel stocked with well-developed, high-quality options can address two of the most common factors cited by faculty when selecting educational resources: the need for comprehensive content and resources that are easy to find. OER has a district advantage for the remaining top concern: the cost to the student.
Questions remain, however. Will there be sufficient adoption in smaller classes to support the production and updating of OER textbook alternatives? Is there enough volume in this market to support other OER publishers?