Can Free Course Materials Improve Student Success?

by Dr. Judith Gay

Two pressing issues for institutions of higher education are the aff ordability of a college education and the need to improve student completion rates. The two issues overlap. Information from past Institutional Research studies at Community College of Philadelphia, for example, found that one of the reasons our students fail to complete a credential is the lack of fi nancial resources. Issues with aff ordability also contribute to inequity in college success, with family income clearly linked to the probability of students completing credentials.

Community College of Philadelphia, like other colleges and universities, is trying a variety of initiatives to respond to the dual challenges of aff ordability and completion. We are seeing some improvement associated with eff orts like new scholarships, increased student support and increased assessment of student learning to guide improvement. Our graduation rate is increasing but currently still falls below the midpoint for two-year colleges based on IPEDS data for fi rst-time, full-time students—the standard most often used in evaluating college success. Additional eff orts to make college more aff ordable may help us improve student outcomes.

One aff ordability initiative that is attracting interest and attention in higher education is the use of open educational resources (OER). The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defi ne OER as “… teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others.” A survey of more than 3,000 faculty members by the Babson Survey Research Group found that the most common consideration mentioned by faculty when choosing educational materials is the cost to students. Faculty at our College have reported that many students start or go through an entire semester without being able to aff ord the textbook or course materials. Lack of access to course materials can have a clear and negative impact on student performance. The Babson study reported that approximately a quarter of the faculty surveyed were aware or very aware of OER, but only 5.3 percent reported using an openly licensed text. Faculty care that materials are costly but have not embraced OER as a potential solution. Faculty who try OER seem more positive about the option. Temple University, for example, has an alternative textbook initiative to help faculty use OER. The results, as reported on their website, seem positive. One faculty member wrote, “I suspect that the reason for the large increase in the percentage of students earning As, and the concomitant decrease in students earning Bs, Cs and Ds may be attributed to the students’ easy access to texts without cost; in previous years, many students on restricted funding failed to purchase some or all of the required books.”

Clearly that faculty member found that using OER was related to improvements in student performance. There are few studies, however, that investigate the relationship of OER to student outcomes. One of the largest studies (Fischer, et al., 2015) examined OER outcomes versus traditional text outcomes for students at 10 different institutions in 15 undergraduate courses. The study revealed that students in courses using OER usually had either the same or better outcomes in terms of course completion, final grade and scoring a C- or better as a final grade.

Students from the OER courses also took more credits during the semester and during the following semester, a factor also associated with greater probability of completion.

In February 2016, the Department of Education announced 14 states that offered statewide “Go Open” initiatives. Massachusetts Community Colleges, for example, launched their initiative in June 2016, encouraged by two community college faculty, early adopters of OER, who calculated that their students saved more than $450,000 over a two-year period. While Pennsylvania is not one of the states included in the initiative, Community College of Philadelphia could take a leadership role in making sure that we make OER, a promising practice already, part of our toolbox for student success. As such, Dr. Generals has agreed to support a small pilot to study OER possibilities at the College. The hope is that by learning the barriers to adoption as well as the advantages of OER, we will be able to move forward more quickly to address affordability issues and completion rates of our students.