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The Perfect Union

Open educational resources can strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion

By Marilyn Cooper

December 5, 2023

How can colleges and universities move their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives forward while reducing costs and bolstering academic success? Open educational resources (OER) offer one way to achieve this objective. OER are teaching and learning materials that are either within the public domain or available through an open license copyright that permits cost-free access, adaption, and redistribution for all users. Research has shown that using OER in courses strengthens student learning and breaks down barriers of accessibility and affordability. Because they help level the academic playing field, OER can also help advance DEI efforts on college and university campuses.

Leveraging Open Educational Resources to Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Guide for Campus Change Agents, a recent publication from the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), provides strategies for colleges and universities that want to integrate their OER and DEI efforts. In the following interview with Liberal Education, co-author of the publication and AAC&U Associate Vice President for Curricular and Pedagogical Innovation and Executive Director for Open Educational Resources and Digital Innovation C. Edward Watson discusses the overall benefits of OER, the importance of digital equity, and the relationship between DEI and OER.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

We want to provide guidance to college and university administrators and faculty who either lead offices, such as academic affairs, that have a significant OER component or who seek to become change agents around OER.

What will people gain from reading this publication?

Readers will gain strategies for how to sustain, amplify, and accelerate OER work on their campuses. For instance, to magnify OER efforts, the publication recommends a core strategy of partnering OER initiatives with other programs and projects on campus. We especially recommend connecting OER efforts with on-campus offices that work on DEI. The outcomes of courses that adopt OER often mirror the goals of these offices.

In general, how do colleges and universities benefit from adopting OER?

First and foremost, OER benefit students. Affordability was the first reason colleges and universities started using OER. Institutions could decrease the cost of college for students by replacing expensive textbooks with free ones. It was easy for institutions to quantify those savings to see how much utilizing OER reduced costs per semester.

As a cost savings measure, providing OER is especially beneficial for community college students. A study done by Achieving the Dream, an organization that supports community colleges, found that students can afford to take more credit hours when institutions provide free textbooks. That leads to higher completion and graduation rates. Studies have also shown that on average, end-of-course grades tend to be higher in OER-based classes, probably because all students have equal access to course materials from the beginning of the semester. Because failure rates are also lower in these classes, students don’t have to retake them and, consequently, graduate more quickly.

What is the relationship between offering OER and advancing DEI?

Some studies have found that providing OER helps level the academic playing field and leads to more equitable outcomes. Some lower-income students may end up struggling through the first few weeks of class before they’re able to purchase an expensive textbook, while others might decide not to purchase it at all. These students tend to perform more poorly in the class than those who have all the course materials. Offering OER fixes this problem. Research shows that when everyone has the textbook on the first day of class, there is decreased difference between the grades of Pell-eligible students (defined by the US Department of Education as undergraduates who display exceptional financial need) and non-Pell-eligible students. Overall rates of students receiving a D, an F, or withdrawing decline. So OER use results in more equitable outcomes. That’s a core goal for DEI offices—so the marriage of OER initiatives and DEI offices is almost a perfect union.

How did the authors of the publication use data gathered from the inaugural AAC&U Institute on Open Educational Resources?

We derived the publications ’s strategies and recommendations from research surveys and focus groups we conducted with individuals from the sixty colleges and universities that participated in the first institute. The book includes seven major OER strategies that worked well for a significant number of different campuses. For example, one recommended strategy is to connect DEI-related OER work to the college or university’s mission statement, strategic plans, or internal governance processes. We also suggest adopting the same language that’s in a college or university’s strategic plan to show that OER work is part of the institution’s DNA and not a standalone initiative.

How can advocates of OER use make its adoption more widespread?

We need to dispel some negative myths about OER. For instance, people often believe that if a textbook is free, it’s probably not good. But most OER textbooks are grant-funded, and faculty are paid to write the books. OpenStax, the premier OER publisher from Rice University, has a review process that mirrors the one used by traditional publishing houses. OpenStax textbooks go through a peer review process with independent experts. Surveys have shown that faculty and students believe that OpenStax textbooks have the same or better quality as ones produced by big for-profit publishers. It’s also helpful to highlight the positive learning outcomes associated with OER use.

How does digital equity affect OER? What can we do to strengthen digital equity?

There are a wide range of excellent online classes and resources, including OER, that strengthen education and learning outcomes in various ways. All of them assume that students have equitable access to the internet, but that is not always the case. We learned a lot more about this problem during the pandemic. Students who lacked internet access at home would take their final exams in cars outside of a Starbucks or a McDonalds hoping that enough internet would bleed out to them. Other students were able to take exams in quiet, comfortable environments. That’s neither fair nor equitable, taking an exam in environment where the student is easily distracted usually has a negative impact on test results. Working toward digital equity for all students is a companion strategy for increasing access to and use of OER or any online learning strategy.

The 2021 federal Digital Equity Act seeks to address this problem. The law includes three relevant objectives. First, all students should have access to high-capacity broadband. Second, when broadband comes to a given neighborhood, it should be offered at a price point that most residents can afford. In a complementary initiative, the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) can provide a stipend to help subsidize the cost of internet access. Third, training and support should be available to help individuals use technology effectively. I am hopeful that the act will improve digital equity. Campuses can help make this happen by educating students about available resources such as the ACP.

How can colleges and universities support faculty members who are trying to adopt OER?

They can provide resources to help faculty members transition to OER-based classes. Any time faculty are trying to adopt a new teaching approach or practice, the greatest challenges are around time. With a change in textbooks, the faculty member needs to either reorganize or significantly redesign the course. Institutions can help by providing summer stipends to give faculty members time to work on these changes. They can also provide access to instructional designers who are experts in this kind of course redesign. In addition to supplying guidance for a smooth transition, these experts can also help improve courses in a variety of ways.


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is associate editor of Liberal Education.