By Cheryl Costantini

Not long ago I sat down with one of our college student interns to get her thoughts on Open Educational Resources (OER). Frankly, I wanted to find out whether she even knew what OER was–do students have interest/awareness in the source of content used in a course?

I was surprised to hear that she not only knew about OER, but that she had used OER in one of her classes. I was not surprised at her initial reaction of “it was really cool, we didn’t have to buy a single book for the class.” For her, the monetary value associated with OER was a big perk.

For me, that’s when the conversation got interesting and I began to understand a little more about a student’s life today and how they interact with OER. From this conversation, I gained valuable insights into the things that we can do to help students get the maximum benefit from OER.

The student’s instructor was a big OER advocate and encouraged the students to only use open materials in the course. To support the students’ use of OER, the instructor prepared for their course by gathering resources and materials for the class to use, delivering it to the students in a list of links. While the student found the content to be great–the videos and assets that were shared were interesting, timely and compelling–she found that accessing it and organizing it could be challenging at times. Often she didn’t have access to them because of where she was physically. When she was online, the need to flip back and forth between the list of links and the websites could be a distraction to the learning itself.

While this type of experience with OER might be discouraging, it shows that OER proponents are on the right track. There is good content out there. There is content that students want to use and that instructors want to point to–and we need to embrace it. There is evidence that suggests utilizing open content helps students better prepare for their courses and increases student engagement. The challenge is helping instructors curate and then package the open material in a way that is usable and part of a larger platform that also includes homework, assessment and other essential courseware elements, especially in cases where the OER content is incomplete.

Functionality, accessibility and quality content are among the top concerns associated with OER for both students and faculty. I believe there is a way to address these concerns using OER in combination with traditional course materials–it doesn’t need to be an either/or. By combining openly licensed content with copyrighted content IN courseware WITH the digital tools that have proven over time to help students learn–education companies as well as universities can provide a flexible, high quality solution.

While frustrating at times, discouraging even, it is refreshing to stop, step away and talk to students to get their thoughts. This simple conversation helped to paint the OER experience for me in a whole new light reiterating the importance of staying true to our focus on the student–helping to drive success and retention at an affordable price point.

We need to consider all sources to help us develop comprehensive solutions with quality content in an engaging and user-friendly experience, because if students don’t use the materials, we aren’t helping them achieve their goals. Our intern admitted that while “free course materials” were great, in the end an option that provided a better user experience and less headache in accessing her materials would have been worth a bit of money.

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Cheryl Costantini is the Vice President of Content Strategy at Cengage. Follow her on Twitter: @costantini


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