Open educational resources (OERs) in higher ed are growing: More than 700 community colleges are working on creating thousands of OERs for workforce development programs in a nationwide grant project that's halfway finished.

These learning resources go into a free and open online library on SkillsCommons.org that any college can reuse, adapt and mash up with other resources as they help adults who go back to school retrain in high-demand fields. And the California State University system, which is known for its MERLOT collection of free and open online learning materials, is helping colleges make the most of OERs by teaching them how to make their learning resources richer by incorporating technology components.

"Reading a Word doc is not the most exciting thing in the world, but you can take all that good content and then add some technology into it and make it over so it's a more engaging multimedia experience for the learner," said Gerry Hanley, assistant vice chancellor of academic tech services at California State University who oversees MERLOT and SkillsCommons.org.

Under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program, $2 billion over four years went to community colleges and other institutions with the goal of helping adults learn new skills in high-demand fields in less than two years. The U.S. departments of labor and education are working together to move this program forward, and the four rounds of grantees have until 2018 to complete their projects.

The SkillsCommons.org project in particular tries to address a major challenge for students who are returning to higher education for retraining: affordability. As textbook prices have skyrocketed, students often don't have the money to pay for them and will sometimes go without them -- or won't even enroll in college. OERs allow colleges to remix, create and adapt content that their students can access at no charge.

"If I can afford the tuition, the textbooks won't become a barrier because now I have free access to this educational material," Hanley said.

On the college side of the equation, so many open educational resources exist in so many different places that it's often difficult to sift through them for quality. It also takes money to pay faculty members who are willing to create their own OERs.

This project provides grant funding, quality control through California State University and a vetting process that colleges go through when they upload their content. It also provides one place for large numbers of open educational resources to live and makes it easier to find them. 

"It provided a sandbox in some ways for us early on, and now that there is such a large amount of material that has been uploaded into the repository, it provides a much lower-risk place for people to access quality material," said Maria Fieth, the communications and community programs manager for SkillsCommons.org who supports grant project directors in her role at California State University.

Fieth previously managed the Consortium for Healthcare Education Online project — a $14 million round 2 grant project for SkillsCommons.org that involved eight community colleges in five states. In this project, colleges in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming developed hybrid and online courses in allied health care for adults under the leadership of Pueblo Community College in Colorado. 

Together, these projects have helped universities rethink how they're providing access to higher education for adults who go back to school to learn skills in a high-demand, high-wage field.

"OER has changed the way that we do business in the educational arena," Fieth said. "It's allowed us to really use money more wisely. We're now leveraging resources in ways that we never did before."