State OER Policies on the Rise

This post is from a guest poster, Emma Wood. Emma (she/her), is the Scholarly Communication Librarian at UMass Dartmouth.

As a Scholarly Communication Librarian, I have been thinking a lot about how best to expand Open Educational Resources (OER) awareness and use on campus. The key for OER success in higher education seems to be quite simple – administrative support. OER advocates, librarians, and faculty members encourage OER through committees, faculty stipend programs, workshops, panels, OA publisher agreements, and the list goes on, but the path forward is easier to traverse once these efforts grab the attention of provosts and administrators, those who can offer sustainability to these projects and address structural barriers such as policies or operational norms that hinder progress. The same is true when scaling up to the state level; universities’ OER success is bolstered by government support. Ultimately that recognition cycles back to librarians and other advocates working on the ground floor – each level powering the other.

Open Educational Resources (OER) have earned the attention of state legislatures because of their cost-savings to students, and because data has shown the positive impact of OER on student success indicators.  Students achieve higher grades when they have consistent access to the required reading from day one of class. There are compelling equity considerations in favor of OER as well from the standpoint of access for all students regardless of socioeconomic background as well as increased diversity in OER authorship. According to SPARC, 11 states have OER-related bills in the current legislative session. 28 states have enacted OER policies in some form. Many are appropriations bills that deploy funds to incentivize and increase OER usage. Some states have committed money to OER directives that establish an OER committee or state-wide OER program which may include initiatives such as OER training and incentives for educators.

In Massachusetts we have an OER Advisory Council launched by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE). The council is composed of one representative from each of the state’s public institutions of higher education, community colleges as well as 4-year universities. The committee seeks opportunities to fund OER in the state, provides trainings, discusses trends and strategy, and more. Further, MA public institutions of higher education report to the DHE annually on their OER cost-savings to students.

The most efficient way to collect OER cost-savings data is with a course marking system. Course marking, sometimes referred to as course flagging, is a system of transparency that indicates to students which courses require free or low-cost materials instead of traditional textbooks. In a nutshell, faculty members check a box to inform the registrar that their course uses free or low-cost resources, and the course is flagged as such in the course catalog where students choose their classes. This transparency helps students to make an informed decision about their course load when the cost of materials may be prohibitive to them.

Although MA does not currently have legislation that requires course marking, this data collection by the DHE may compel state schools to implement course marking systems. Some states have made course marking mandatory. Oregon’s course marking legislation passed in 2021 and went into effect January 01, 2022. The law “requires each public university and community college to prominently display, or establish link to website that displays, estimated costs of all required course materials and directly related course fees for no less than 75 percent of total for-credit courses offered by public university or community college.”

The increase in OER policies and legislation is reflective of the momentum that the OER movement has built over the years. OER is no longer a new concept, and worries about quality of content have fallen away as three little letters (OER) have proven themselves to be a mighty force capable of breaking barriers. All of the kudos to the wonderful people who pushed for open course materials when the topic was less mainstream, maybe even controversial on some campuses, and paved the way for OER to reach the administrative and state level. We are at a zenith point for OER now that Open Educational Resources are included in policy-making conversations and educational infrastructure. With that upsurge in OER on college campuses, comes a bonus opportunity for librarians – heightened demand for OER professionals. OER is in a peak position right now (or at least more visible than it has ever been previously), but to continue gaining administrative support, advocates can’t drop the ball on the work that we do. We have to be “so good they can’t ignore” us.

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