OER for higher ed gets a boost with $5 million pilot program


The federal spending legislation enacted this month includes money for a new program to support open educational resources (OER) in higher education — that is, openly licensed digital textbooks for college students.

The $5 million for the OER pilot program might not seem like much, but Nicole Allen, director of open education for SPARC, a group committed to improving access to data and educational materials, suggested it’s enough to have an outsized positive impact for financially struggling college students.

“[Existing] OER grants have saved students more than 10 times the original investment, so $5 million could mean more than $50 million in savings,” Allen told EdScoop.

According to the think tank New America, the Government Accountability Office found that from 2002 to 2012, “textbook prices rose over 82 percent. While this number may not seem like a lot, for the typical community college student, this can amount to nearly a quarter of the cost of attendance.”

The pilot program is to “support projects at institutions of higher education that create new open textbooks or expand their use in order to achieve savings for students while maintaining or improving instruction and student learning outcomes,” according to the explanatory statement that Congress attached to the bill.

Allen said there was a grassroots campaign directed at key elected officials and congressional leadership. That effort included SPARC members — primarily academic and research libraries in the U.S. and Canada — and students coordinated by U.S. PIRG, a federation of public interest research groups,

“We also look at this as an important symbolic victory, because it’s an acknowledgement that [OER] is something that educational institutions should prioritize for students,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Education is likely to take several months to set up the new program before it solicits grant applications, Allen said. The first step will be a notice in the Federal Register, where agencies publish regulations and issue other information. Allen suggested that institutions interested in the pilot program should subscribe to the Federal Register and request alerts on the term “open textbooks.”

Until the program is formally set up by the department, there’s no way to know what the specific criteria will be for applicants. Allen pointed out that the last sentence in the spending bill’s language requires the department “to focus on programs that will save students the most money.”

She also noted that the win in Congress will help at the state level, too.

“A number of states have already [set up OER programs,]” Allen said. “In turn, Congress’ endorsement … sends an important message to other states that this is a solution they should look at locally as well.”

Despite this victory, Allen cautioned that it is just a pilot program, and just for fiscal 2018.

“We’re already working on fiscal year 2019,” Allen said. “We celebrated Friday night — and Monday morning we were already on Capitol Hill talking to legislators. We’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s included.”

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