OER is at a tipping point. Here's how to keep it moving in the right direction.

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In his now-classic book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell explains how everything from “Sesame Street” to Airwalk shoes has sky-rocketed in popularity and shaped society. Gladwell posits that when the right elements are in place, a good idea can gain traction, reach a “point of critical mass,” and then spread like wildfire.

Open educational resources (OER) are reaching the type of tipping point that Gladwell describes. While the rise of OER — freely available, openly licensed materials that can be downloaded, edited, and shared — has happened gradually over the past decade, these resources are now poised to transform both K-12 and higher education for the better.

Michigan’s Lansing Community College (LCC), where I serve as librarian and OER project manager, offers one example of how OER can be integrated and impactful. In 2015, five of our faculty members replaced traditional textbooks with OER. By the spring semester of 2018, 75 of our faculty had fully converted to OER in 154 course sections, reaching 3,711 of our nearly 25,000 students.

How did OER reach a tipping point at LCC? As Gladwell points out, an idea needs “stickiness” to truly take hold — in other words, only good ideas succeed. OER’s stickiness comes from these resources’ high quality and their benefits to students, which include cost savings, increased engagement and improved learning, along with the potential for faculty to improve and innovate their teaching practices.

When I send out faculty feedback surveys each semester, results consistently demonstrate OER are comparable to, if not slightly better in quality than, traditional textbooks.

Matthew Van Cleave, a professor of philosophy at LCC, attests to the value of OER when he says, “The reason I wrote my own logic textbook for LCC’s ‘Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking’ course was precisely that there was a lack of high-quality materials that covered both formal and informal logic. The fact that my textbook continues to be adopted by faculty around the country is a satisfying confirmation of my sense of the need and my attempt to do something about it.”

Our faculty also appreciate having the ability to customize their materials to match their teaching style and students’ needs and interests. And while identifying and curating appropriate OER for courses continues to be a challenge for our faculty, it’s now becoming easier for them, thanks to a variety of repositories, including our own statewide OER Commons hub , created by Michigan Colleges Online. Also, LLC’s OER guide for faculty has been an invaluable source of information to help them find appropriate OER in their subject disciplines , as it provides information on evaluation criteria , workflows, Creative Commons licensing and copyright .

Students at LCC appreciate having immediate access to learning materials on the first day of their courses — and even after their courses have ended. That equitable access to course materials also resonates with our faculty OER adopters.

For Van Cleave, this is important because he believes that “access to content and knowledge should not depend on how much money you have. That isn’t fair.”

Marita De Leon, professor of psychology at LCC, points out that “with textbooks now alternatively offered using an access code, students are not able to keep the textbook and associated materials when the code expires at the end of the semester. This is not acceptable.”

And, of course, students like saving money, especially considering that 40 percent of LCC students’ educational costs are spent on textbooks. Our students often tell us about the life-changing impact of OER and the freedom that comes with their ability to channel these savings into personal and educational investments.

We estimate that OER have saved LCC students more than $1.6 million so far, and we’re excited to see that amount continue to grow. In fall 2017, our board of trustees approved a $500,000 grant to support faculty as they adopt, revise, remix or create OER. We anticipate a massive return on this investment, as the materials our faculty create will save our students far more than $500,000 and can easily be used and adapted by other faculty. And because OER can be shared beyond our institution and state, this investment also could benefit faculty and students around the country and the world.

Congress recently recognized the promise of OER by authorizing $5 million for an open textbook pilot grant program. These funds have the potential to give states and institutions the nudge they need to bring OER to a true tipping point and enable more faculty and students to experience the positive impact of these resources.

But our experience at LCC proves that the federal open-textbook grant funds must be used wisely. These funds must prioritize programs that convert high-enrollment courses to OER, so that student savings and impact are maximized. They must support efforts to create supplementary materials to existing open textbooks, so that they’re easier to adopt. They must enable campuses to build the technical infrastructure to expand OER sustainably, so that all of us can take full advantage of the many opportunities that open resources present for higher-quality teaching and learning.

More importantly, I hope this isn’t a one-off funding opportunity. Five million dollars is definitely not enough to support public schools, community colleges and universities in their textbook affordability initiatives. The federal government should incorporate open textbook grants into its annual budget to benefit not just higher education institutions but the K-12 sector as well.

I’m excited to see our education system on the verge of a new, open era. We’re at a pivotal moment for OER, and with the right elements in place, we can empower more faculty to create, share and teach with the high-quality, culturally-relevant, accessible materials they need and give more students access to the excellent education they deserve.

Regina Gong is the librarian and OER project manager for Lansing Community College in Michigan.

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