Higher Education

Can OER Foster Equity in Higher Education?

By Henry Kronk
January 20, 2020

When discussing a student’s ability to achieve an undergraduate degree, the topic of textbooks has increasingly come to the fore. While less significant than tuition, room, or board, textbooks and other learning materials represent an increasingly significant cost for any undergraduate student. As a solution, many educators, organizations, and some companies have proposed open educational resources (OER). While OER has often been viewed as a means to make college more affordable, few have drilled deeper into the issue. A recent study, however, proposes that OER can address issues of equity in higher education by making a bigger difference in college affordability for some communities who tend to be underrepresented on campus.

A group of researchers from Washington State University found that OER use had an outsized effect on first-generation students and, to a lesser extent, students belonging to ethnic minorities. Their OER test group not only performed as well as the commercial textbook control, they also saved, by a conservative estimate, a collective $24,000 in the process. The researchers believe these findings hold important implications for use and policy concerning OER.

OER involves academic material published via a Creative Commons open licenses. Anyone is free to use, adapt, and republish this material. As such, it can often be provided to students in a digital format for free, or in print for only the cost of printing.

OER’s Potential to Address Issues of Equity

Researchers from the Washington State University Department of Psychology—Amy Nusbaum, Carrie Cuttler, and Samantha Swindell—recently tested OER use against the textbook their department currently uses for their introductory course. “Open Educational Resources as a Tool for Educational Equity: Evidence from an Introductory Psychology Class” was published in Frontiers in Education this month.

The researchers divided eleven sections of an Introduction to Psychology course into a control group using the incumbent commercial textbook and a test group using an adapted version of the OpenStax Psychology offering. The test occurred during the 2018 fall semester. In all, the sample group numbered 774 students.

Nusbaum et al. wanted to investigate three main issues: what effect would OER have on students of different ethnic minority groups and family backgrounds (e.g. first-generation students vs. those whose parents had been to college); whether or not OER use would lead to a difference in academic achievement; and finally, how students perceived OER versus commercial textbooks.

After the course, students were asked to voluntarily fill out a survey that compiled their course performance with other demographic data, along with responses to numerous questions regarding their academic behavior and textbook habits.

The Results

The researchers observed the greatest effects of OER among first-generation students. When textbook costs were high, this group reported taking more actions to offset those costs, such as not registering for a course, withdrawing from or dropping it, or not buying the required textbook at higher rates.

Furthermore, students who both belong to ethnic minority groups and are first-generation were more likely to say that they had earned a lower grade in a course because they had not bought the textbook.

The researchers speculate that this effect snowballs over the course of a college career:

Class-by-class, book-by-book, marginalized students are more vulnerable to financially-driven decisions that can negatively affect their academic progress and outlook, decisions their peers are less likely to encounter. Although the results of the present study only show that marginalized students report engaging in these actions at higher rates, it is also possible that they are contemplating these choices more frequently and more intently then their peers, thus utilizing time and energy that further undermines their academic success.

Students who used the OER, meanwhile, did not differ statistically from the control group in terms of academic performance. These learners also did not notice a significant difference in the quality of the OER text compared to the commercial textbook group.

The researchers, therefore, conclude that using OER has the potential to increase equity in higher education, especially if it is used widely over the course of a student’s time in university. What’s more, OER has the potential to make an even greater impact in STEM fields, where the costs of textbooks tend to be higher.

Read the full study here.

Featured Image: Abscent84, iStock.