Supporting OER Adoption
College of the Canyons is a California Community College and Hispanic Serving Institution in northern Los Angeles County. Our 22,000+ students attend classes at two physical campuses, with online classes accounting for 25% of our schedule (pre-pandemic). We offer 88 certificate and 95 associate degree programs in career education and transfer programs.
At the 2018 Open Education Global Conference in Delft, the Netherlands, Natalie Miller, then a College of the Canyons student, received the first Open Education Global Student Award. As proud of Natalie as I was for winning this international recognition, it also occurred to me that this focus on a student pointed to many elements of what made our OER program successful.
As Dean of Learning Resources at College of the Canyons, I have led our OER program since 2008. In the early years, I was the lone OER champion, delivered workshops on OER to nearly empty rooms, and counted OER adoptions in the single digits. Over time, however, I built an OER team and recruited allies. I tied OER efforts to larger institutional goals such as increasing student success and reducing equity gaps, which often led to funding. This was all helped by documenting the impact of OER and connecting to the larger OER community.
Student OER Team
At College of the Canyons, OER adoptions soared once we began building our OER program around students, beginning with Natalie in 2016 and evolving into a team of student workers and recent graduates. We originally hired Natalie to help faculty locate OER materials. On her own initiative, she created a promotional campaign for our OER initiative (you might have seen our cat banner, pictured in Figure 1), she wrote for student publications, and she set up tables on the quad where she showed off our collection of OpenStax books. She connected me with our student government, which led to a formal resolution calling on faculty to consider OER.
Ultimately, Natalie passed the baton to other students. Today, the OER team typically consists of four current students and recent graduates. This is in addition to the Director of Online Education, who supervises their daily work. (More on the organizational structure, below.)
Crucially, when advocating for OER with faculty, a student voice has more credibility than someone with my administrative title. I have facilitated plenty of workshops at my college and can respond to most questions from faculty, but having a student speak about her own positive experience with OER quickly wins over an academic audience. I can cite research about financial hardships, while a student can describe her own hard choices with finances and textbooks.
Nascent OER programs sometimes encounter faculty who like the idea of adopting OER but say that they do not have the time to actually make the change. The core function of our student OER team is to remove the reasons faculty might give for not adopting or adapting OER.
Consider these scenarios:
- You have heard about OER but do not know where to start? Have a chat with this knowledgeable student who took your class last year, and she will walk you through finding and adopting OER.
- You cannot find any good openly licensed materials? No problem, we will search for resources that align with and support the learning objectives outlined in your syllabus.
- You cannot take time to polish a manuscript? No worries. Our English tutor reads every word and edits every page.
- Your discipline needs specialized images of gadgets and gizmos? Just wait while we run to the hardware store and photograph the gadgets and gizmos. (We can also take pictures in your lab.)
- You are concerned about remixing materials from different file formats and still having them look cohesive? That is why we created a style guide that provides consistent formatting.
- You want your materials to be accessible, but do not know how to format headers and alt text? Our accessibility team member has that covered—she uses a screen reader to review and format every page.
This approach not only provides faculty with local support, but also provides our students with employment, the opportunity to gain practical skills, and the pride of working alongside their professors.
Additionally, our student OER team helps us to remember the student view. Our student workers first brought to my attention the power of names in texts. “We’re changing the names,” they confessed years ago. “When we get a manuscript, the names in examples are usually Joe and Karen. We change them to Jose and Maria, since those are the names our students have.” (Now this conversation with faculty authors is a formal part of our workflow.)
To date, our small-but-mighty OER team has helped faculty develop open textbooks for 60 different courses. Many more faculty have adopted open textbooks published elsewhere. College of the Canyons students can complete six different Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) pathways. In 2020–21 our faculty used OER in over 550 classes, equivalent to 26% of all class sections.
Where Does OER Support Live?
Creating and selecting instructional materials are clearly the purview of faculty. However, at College of the Canyons we have found it helpful to centralize OER support within the Online Education Department. This department is led by an administrative Director, with two staff Coordinators, and a range of independent contractors. Making the OER team part of an established department provides several advantages. At some institutions, the same reasons apply to housing OER within a teaching center. In our context, the Online Education Department is:
- Viewed as a source of innovation and training.
- Led by an administrator experienced with hiring processes, time sheets, and budgets.
- Placed on the organizational chart, directs its own budget and program plan, and thus cannot be discontinued as easily as something labeled a pilot or initiative.
At my institution, an administrator is better positioned than a faculty member to implement OER-related processes because they have experience with similar institutional processes. Take the example of class scheduling and course marking. California state law (Senate Bill 1359) mandates that we mark each ZTC section in our schedule of classes. Deciding the appropriate point in the scheduling process when a section is denoted as ZTC requires a strong grasp of reporting processes and an understanding of the student information system (SIS). For example, does your SIS permit you to add symbols at the section level?
The Online Education Department, housing the OER team, falls under my supervision as Dean of Learning Resources. My primary roles are to secure the funding needed to support the program and to advocate for OER with institutional leadership.
OER discussions are mainstreamed throughout the institution. Our President asks about OER in final interviews for faculty positions. New faculty learn about OER during their orientation. Professional development credit is awarded for learning about OER. Our Board of Trustees approves sabbaticals devoted to OER. All of this sends a signal to new faculty that OER is a valued and uncontroversial component of teaching and learning.
Securing formal endorsement from key stakeholders has also helped mainstream OER. For example, our Board of Trustees, Academic Senate, and Associated Student Government all have adopted resolutions supporting OER. This arises not only from years of on-campus outreach about OER, but also from framing OER as a means to address larger institutional goals such as affordability and degree completion.
Another key to mainstreaming OER has been to strike a balance between having a strong advocate and engaging allies. Many OER programs start with one or two champions, but building a team across the institution can be helpful in the long term. When I could no longer keep up with faculty requests to help search for OER, we built our OER student team. When we joined the OpenStax Institutional Partnership program, another manager became the point person for OER on our campus. When a librarian wanted to complete the Creative Commons Certificate, I gladly found the money. When we host statewide conferences, our faculty and students are featured speakers, not me. In short, invite others to the open education party, not just as guests, but as hosts.
Linking your OER initiative to institutional goals is essential. For example, my college knows that students in classes using OER are succeeding, and this is particularly true for students from disproportionately impacted populations. We compare student retention rates in classes using OER with retention rates in non-OER classes. For both African-American/Black students and Asian/Filipino students, the retention rate is 3% higher in OER classes. Moving from a commercial text to an OER is fine; reducing the equity gaps faced by traditionally under-resourced populations is better.
Ask yourself, and tell your colleagues, why you want to adopt OER:
- Save students money
- Increase access and reduce equity gaps
- Improve student engagement and success
- Promote enrollment management
- Improve transfer readiness
- Increase degree completion
Each of these articulated goals will attract different allies and identify different sources of funding. Once upon a time, our OER initiative was accused of “wanting to get rid of books.” Today, our program is known as a tool to promote affordability and reduce equity gaps. As we have better articulated our impact, we have become more mainstreamed in program plans and strategic goals, leading to new sources of funding.
Document OER Impact Early and Often
The importance of documenting your OER impact early and often cannot be overstated. This will help with everything from your elevator pitch to the last-minute grant application. Become good friends with your institutional researchers. Maybe you are capable of developing a survey on your own, but integrating your OER results into institutional metrics is another way to mainstream OER.
At my college, we know that textbook costs influence the enrollment decisions of 70% of our students—so OER is important for the enrollment management team. We know that the number of students satisfied with the quality of OER is 92%—so OER is important for our student retention efforts. We know that the success rate of LatinX students in OER classes is higher than that of similar students in non-OER classes—so OER is important for everyone who cares about equity.
Just as important as the quantitative data is the qualitative information you collect to tell your story. Some audiences are persuaded by data, and others are moved by stories. I find that grant applications require hard data, but when meeting potential funders in person, a compelling human story carries the day. Our activities have been included in Case Studies and Student Impact Stories. Thanks to our Public Information Office, our stories are captured in the local press.
While the data and the stories are gratifying, they are also useful—in grant applications and budget requests, in statewide advocacy and accreditation reports. If you are just starting an OER initiative, capture your students’ views of textbooks. Does your college conduct an annual student survey? Ask your students about their enrollment choices, barriers to success, and time to graduation, and make “textbook costs” a possible answer.
Show Me the Money
Securing financial resources is important. But to what end?
- Hiring staff. I am a fan of hiring current students. They learn practical skills, gain confidence by working alongside their professors, build a portfolio of work, and keep you honest with the student perspective. Additionally, employing students can be cost-effective since their hours might be subsidized by work-study programs or covered by existing department budgets.
- Expand your team. You might have a team of employees who work directly with OER, or an extended team of OER supporters. In either case, it is important to bring more people into your OER orbit. Sending people to conferences helps to develop your team. Hosting luncheons and giving awards inspires your team. Funding others to give workshops amplifies your team.
- Your salary. Within the machinery of the institution, the budget matters. The grant proposal you are developing? Include it in the budget as a portion of your time. Literally, this can buy time for you to devote to your project, for example by releasing you from teaching one class. Also, buying your time demonstrates to the funders that you and your project bring value. When you deliver a workshop on OER, nobody in the institution’s business office knows; when a portion of your salary is covered by outside funding, the business office knows.
- Stipends to adapt or author OER. I am not in the business of deciding that you get a dollar more for writing a paragraph more than someone else. If you adapt or author OER to the extent that your students no longer have to use a commercial textbook, then you get a full stipend. The amount is often less important than the time. For my program, I have decided that the stipend is equivalent to the amount you would earn for teaching one class. This essentially says, “Don’t teach that extra class this semester; do devote time to this OER project.”
- Celebrating Success. Adopting OER is lauded with thank you notes and luncheons. However, we do not pay faculty to adopt instructional materials, whether they are OER or commercial. Maintaining currency in the field—reviewing and adopting new instructional materials on a cycle appropriate to the discipline—is seen as a normal part of one’s duties.
Our college budget does not include a permanent line for OER. As noted above, though, the Board of Trustees approves sabbaticals for OER development, which is a significant financial investment. Overall, we follow a model of braided funding, weaving multiple funding sources together into a whole. The advantage is that you do not depend on a single source of funds, which can go away. The challenge is that each new strand of funding takes time and effort to cultivate and manage.
Despite the fact that OER does not appear in my job description, I dedicate a large portion of my time to OER. However, many grants over the years have paid large portions of my salary, demonstrating value to the institution.
We have secured external funding from federal, state, and private sources. As we have linked our OER goals more clearly to student success and completion, we have identified funding from a variety of state initiatives:
- College Promise
- Guided Pathways
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
An unexpected source of funding might be your college foundation or local business and industry organizations. The case is straightforward: Every dollar that students do not send to a commercial publisher located far away from your community is a dollar that students can spend locally, in businesses owned and operated by your local donors.
Don’t Be Shy
My college encourages everyone to take on leadership roles in our professional organizations. When I had the honor of serving as board president for the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) and then Open Education Global (OEG), my college did not expect to be reimbursed for my time and did regularly approve international travel. These roles brought positive attention externally, and this increased credibility internally.
From 2016 to 2019, we supported colleges across California to develop ZTC pathways (together with our excellent partners at West Hills College Lemoore). We provided professional development across the state, hosting multiple statewide conferences. While these conferences supported community colleges across the state, they also provided the opportunity to tell people on campus that OER is growing: “This is where the action is! Look how many people are interested!”
Phone a Friend
Connecting with the larger open education community is essential. For example, I find that CCCOER’s community email is invaluable. Many College of the Canyons faculty and staff have presented in CCCOER’s webinars, which has forced us to collect our thoughts and step up our game. We have partnered with CCCOER, under the leadership of Una Daly, on grant projects that have brought ideas and funding. California’s statewide academic senate runs an OER project, for which I serve on the advisory committee, and one of our instructors serves in a leadership role. Another great resource was the OpenStax Institutional Partnership program. This helped us to improve our planning by asking us to complete a strategic plan template. All of these relationships take time and energy—and they all bring benefits both tangible and intangible.
Seeing Natalie receive the global recognition she deserved was thrilling. Similarly, seeing our OER program grow to the point where OER adoptions are commonplace is also thrilling. College of the Canyons has embraced OER because it supports larger institutional goals such as increasing student success and retention, and also reduces equity gaps. This points to the importance of articulating your OER objectives, which can also lead to varied sources of funding. Funding is important not only to provide stipends to faculty authors, but also as a means to expand your team, whether that consists of student workers or faculty cheerleaders. Along the way, document your impact with both data and stories, and seek allies in the larger OER community.