Research studies show that student success increases when colleges replace traditional textbooks with resources that are open to anyone who wants to use and repurpose them.
These open educational resources — called OERs for short — provide one way to address higher education's access and affordability changes. Educators have theorized that high textbook costs negatively affect student success, and now data backs them up, showing that OERs do improve student success.
A 2012 survey of more than 20,000 Florida college students showed that 63.6 percent don't purchase textbooks for their classes because of the cost, according to the Orange Grove Repository Project, led by the Florida Virtual Campus. While this may seem high, it's true, said Geoff Cain, director of distance education at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif.
"I've read online and heard instructors say that those kinds of figures seem like an exageration, but that's one of the harsh realities of the economy right now," Cain said. "It's just getting tougher and tougher for students to hang in there."
Open educational resources provide some hope, though. College of the Redwoods is one of nine community colleges participating in Project Kaleidoscope, an initiative with a goal of increasing student success by bringing textbook costs down to $30 or less. Faculty from different community colleges work together to find the best open educational resources and design courses that include them.
Project Kaleidoscope courses at the college in psychology, biology and math saved students in each class a collective $58,000 to $60,000. The whole math department is using these resources, and now a 612-page e-textbook is $20 online at lulu.com and in print at the college bookstore.
So far, students say their experience is no different between using an online and a physical textbook, and neither is their retention rate. In some colleges, students have even better retention rates.
"We have instructors here who are committed to OERs because open education resources and open textbooks are expanding the access to education for more students, and this is particularly important for community colleges in this economic environment," Cain said.
Research from Project Kaleidoscope, the Bridge to Success Project and the Orange Grove Digital Repository Project is bringing together different data points to show increases in student success, said Kim Kim Thanos, founder of Lumen Learning and program manager for Project Kaleidoscope. A webinar hosted by the Open Courseware Consortium on Tuesday, Dec. 4, highlighted the research of these three projects.
"The core result is telling the story that eliminating cost as a barrier to student success will have impact, and that it can have a significant impact for low-income students or for students who are generally at open access institutions," Thanos said.
In the 10 courses that faculty developed for Project Kaleidoscope, researchers compared historical student course completion to how they did in the revamped courses. Overall, they saw major gains of students earning a "C" or better in courses including Intermediate Algebra, Developmental Reading and English Composition, and smaller gains in all but two classes.
The Intermediate Algebra course saw the percentage of students jump from just over 20 percent to slightly less than 80 percent. In Geography, students fell short by 5 to 10 percentage points compared to historical student success.
But there is noise in the data, Thanos said. One faculty member in Geography saw significant improvement from her historical benchmark while other faculty members struggled to transition to new course materials. And while the results looked "amazing" for students in Intermediate Algebra, no students in any college passed a math class that met at 8 a.m. on Friday. That means the data is more complex than it appears, she said.
When Project Kaleidoscope started more than a year ago, researchers did not have data to support their hypothesis that open educational resources would help impact student success positively.
"Now we have the data where we know that there's a measurable improvement in student success as a result of complete adoption of open resources," Thanos said. "That stems from the fact that all of the students have full access to the materials on the first day of class. And so they don't lose learning time or get behind if they're waiting for some sort of access to funds that will help them have access to their study materials."