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Large-Scale Adoption of Open Educational Resources as an Institutional Differentiator

The EvoLLLution | Large-Scale Adoption of Open Educational Resources as an Institutional Differentiator
Making open educational resources available to students at a large scale requires a high level of commitment from the institution in terms of time, effort and resources.

The past decade has seen a steady growth in the disruptive potential of open educational resources (OER)—free, high-quality, openly licensed educational materials in a variety of media—to enhance access, improve outcomes and lower costs for students. There is evidence that the movement has reached a tipping point. With major support from the Hewlett Foundation and other funders, the focus has shifted to large-scale—program-wide or even enterprise-wide—adoption of OER as the core or even sole curricular educational content.

What is also clear is that fully realizing the potential of OER to achieve these outcomes will require a strategic approach, adequate institutional resources and a willingness to transform more fundamental aspects of the traditional model of delivering education.

The World Has Changed

Universities came into existence in an age when books and learning were scarce. They played the role of aggregators, concentrating resources that were exceedingly hard to come by and making them available to an elite few. While mass education and modern large-scale universities have made enormous strides in expanding access, in many ways the forms of traditional education—lectures, libraries and textbooks—continue to reflect the thinking of an age when knowledge was scarce and still needed to be locally concentrated.[1] This traditional mindset constrains the ability of higher education to fully realize the benefits of OER, and may explain the long genesis (now beginning its third decade) of this disruptive innovation.

Higher education’s cognitive disconnect is not lost on the public or politicians, whose lived daily experience is one of ubiquitous information and resources, all available for free or at very low cost (think of audio or video subscriptions like Amazon Prime that give you access to thousands of resources). Rightly or wrongly, the growing expectation is that universities, as learning providers, should be at least reasonably competitive in this arena.

Large-Scale Adoptions of OER

Despite these obstacles, the scale of OER adoption is growing rapidly, and it is increasingly clear that dabbling a toe in the water—simply encouraging individual faculty use of OER in their classrooms—no longer suffices.

There is no single model of large-scale adoptions, as several comparative examples illustrate. Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) created a set of OER-based general education courses that allow NOVA students to satisfy core associate’s degree requirements without paying any additional costs for textbooks. Extending these benefits across the whole two-year degree, Tidewater Community College in Virginia has created what it calls the “Z Degree,” in which OER have been adopted in nearly every section of an Associate’s in Business Administration. The entire program can be completed without paying for textbooks, saving students 25 percent on the cost of their education. Besides cost saving, early assessments by Tidewater point to gains in successful course completions, reductions in withdrawals and improved student satisfaction.

At UMUC we have gone a step further. In Fall of 2015 we fully completed a two-year initiative to provide all 65,000 undergraduate students with online access to virtually all required course materials at no additional cost. In more than 700 courses and 31 programs, UMUC replaced physical textbooks with bundles of electronic materials. These bundles were primarily OER, but where there were gaps in availability, or where framing material was needed for various learning objects, teams of faculty subject-matter experts and instructional designers produced supplementary materials in-house.

What Will It Take?

“No additional cost to the student” does not mean no cost for the institution. At UMUC, the large-scale transition from textbooks required a team-based approach for each step of development, from discovery of OER, to vetting for quality, to reviewing for licensing and ADA compliance, to embedding within the learning environment.

Besides commitment of resources, institutions contemplating the benefits of large-scale adoption of OER should consider the value of deeper changes in the traditional model of delivering education. An example of the “scarcity mentality” with regard to knowledge is the practice of leaving the design and content of each class section to one individual faculty member. The danger of grafting large-scale adoption of OER onto this model is that it may create more, not less, curricular incoherence, and may work against the goal of improving access and quality. Students will not appreciate lowered costs if those come with a degraded educational experience.

To put this equation another way, the institution that successfully capitalizes on OER as a differentiator will need to differentiate itself in other ways as an innovator in delivering education.

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Smith, Peter P. From Scarcity to Abundance: Achieving Quality-Assured Mass Higher Education. Online Learning Journal, [S.l.], v. 15, n. 2, jun. 2011. ISSN ISSN 1092-8235. Available at: Date accessed: 02 Jan. 2016.

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