Using OER Helps Reduce Social Justice Issues in Higher Ed

Dr. Michael Mills, Vice President of E-Learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence, Montgomery College | Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Higher education leaders are spending countless hours planning for a post-pandemic college, focusing on issues centered on the future impacts of COVID-19. Enrollments are a concern at most institutions, as students struggle to decide whether they can afford to return to campuses because of financial hardships many endured as the result of their own lost jobs or those of family members. Enrollment, more than ever, has become a social justice issue.

Students who were once full time may now be attending part time because of circumstances created by the pandemic.  Part-time students may have had to drop out completely.  Whether full-time or part-time, students have been forced by the pandemic to make decisions about the basic needs of living.  Education has had to be put on the back burner for many. 

"OER initiatives allows students to be creators of content in partnership with faculty"

Use of open educational resources (OER), long known for their ability to reduce the burden of textbook costs on students, is playing a pivotal role in helping students in their return to campus.  Colleges and faculty recognize this; faculty interest in OER has grown since the pandemic began, Richard Baraniuk, founder of OpenStax, told Inside Higher Ed last spring.

At Montgomery College the same is true. Already a strong proponent of using OER, Montgomery College is seeing additional faculty look at ways to reduce the cost of education to students, realizing that the high cost of a textbook should not be the reason a student is denied the opportunity for a college education.

Since 2017, when Montgomery College first starting marking z-courses (courses with zero textbook costs), it is estimated that students have saved about $7.3 million in textbook costs.   Why is this a social justice issue? Simply put – students are using those savings to not only invest in their own educational goals, but more importantly, they are able to use those savings for daycare, rent, food and other daily necessities.  Even if students are not putting the savings back into their own learning, they are putting that money back into their own communities.

Faculty at Montgomery College are now more fully aware of the impact OER have on students’ ability to be successful in college. Data collected since 2017 shows that student success has not been hampered by the use of OER, with traditionally under-represented populations doing as well or better in z-courses compared to courses where faculty use a commercial textbook.

Again, Montgomery College, as are other schools, is demonstrating that OER isn’t simply a textbook cost issue, but is more of an access and social justice issue.

As colleges and faculty examine ways to encourage students to return to college – whether online or on campus – it is imperative to see students as partners in the learning process.  Open pedagogy, a part of OER initiatives, allows students to be creators of content in partnership with faculty. One example more and more faculty are using is allowing students to have input in the creation of the course syllabus.  This inclusive action encourages all voices to be heard, providing students with an opportunity to express the types of assignments expected and when those assignments are due.  Students of different cultures have a say if they are impacted because of religious observances or social expectations.

As we fight our way out of the pandemic and deal with the virus variants, we have to accept that returning to a pre-pandemic environment is not likely to work in higher education. And, as a result, our communities will be forever impacted.  Use of OER can serve to bridge the social divide created by the virus.

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