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When organizers from University of Maryland University College (UMUC), University System of Maryland William E. Kirwan Center For Academic Innovation, and MarylandOnline were planning the daylong “Advancing Postsecondary Student Success Through OER” summit, they anticipated that the event would draw, at most, a couple hundred educators. But they soon found themselves capping attendance for the Dec. 8 gathering at 500—the capacity of the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center where the event was held.

“I felt the energy even while I was parking,” said Maryland State Senator James C. Rosapepe, who was there to address attendees at the beginning of the summit, the purpose of which was to launch the next step in the state-wide Maryland Open Source Textbook Initiative (MOST).  He added that he interpreted the smattering of available parking spaces in the venue’s garage as an indication of just how important OERs—shorthand for the low-cost, openly-licensed educational tools known as Open Educational Respources—are to many educators and to students.

“This was a student-driven initiative,” Rosapepe said. “That’s a big deal.”

In his opening remarks, UMUC President Javier Miyares noted that the university has fully embraced open educational resources. By fall 2015, UMUC had replaced all publisher textbooks for undergraduate courses, which can cost students hundreds of dollars per semester, with the much less expensive OERs. Last year, it did the same for most graduate courses.

“At first, some referred to OERs as ‘no cost,’ which might have been an oversimplification,” Miyares said. “Still, the financial savings to students have been significant, and the shift to OERs is wholly consistent with our ongoing quest to provide a quality education that is both accessible and affordable.”

Other speakers, including Cable Green, director of open education at the nonprofit Creative Commons’, and David Wiley, co-founder and chief academic officer for Lumen Learning, picked up on that clarification. They variously compared OERs to sunlight and puppies. OERs might appear to be free, but they need to be fed, maintained and, in the example of sunlight, harnessed with other tools and manpower.

Mansur Hasib, chair of UMUC's Cybersecurity Technology Program, particularly enjoyed Willey’s sunshine analogy. “While sunshine is free, infrastructure is usually required to harness its power for a variety of uses. Such infrastructure and value-added services are usually not free … nor should we expect them to be so,” he said. “As with any innovation, we need to be willing to fine-tune and adjust what we present and how we present on an ongoing basis.”

If done correctly, cost savings with OERs can be enormous. Textbook costs have increased by 88 percent from 2006 to 2016, Green said, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. On average, students are assigned $1,200 to $1,300 worth of textbooks each year.

“Two-thirds of your students are not buying all of the educational resources that you, as faculty, have assigned,” Green said. “That’s not good, because you, as faculty, have designed your course specifically for your students to be successful in [that] course.”

Expensive price tags on traditional, copyrighted educational materials are forcing students to make tough career choices, too, according to Green. “Students say, ‘I really wanted to be a nurse, or I really wanted to be an engineer, but I went and looked at the cost of the instructional materials for nursing and they’re prohibitively expensive, so I guess I can’t go into allied health,’” he said. “That’s really sad. People are actually changing their career decisions based on the cost of educational resources.”

OERs, by comparison, are often no-cost to students or can cost only a handful of dollars if students want to print the OER textbooks. And speaker after speaker confirmed that educational materials placed in the public domain allow professors to modify and tailor them to their specific students.

But conversations during breakout sessions and between sessions also revealed that there are challenges. Some OER users have found the quality of materials to be uneven. Some who teach within technical fields said they can’t count on others to have created OER texts and assignments in their disciplines. During a particular mid-session conversation, one professor said he’s heard of students finding mistakes in OER materials, which raised questions for students about their credibility.

UMUC is lucky in this regard, according to Hasib. “At UMUC, our aspirational vision and mandate from President Miyares helped everyone focus on successful implementation rather than argue about merits,” he said. “The message from the event was very clear. Students prefer courses with OER content. They learn equally or better.”

The pioneering embrace of OERs at UMUC wasn’t smooth sailing from the start, said Laureece Hymes, the university’s learning design and solutions digital rights manager, who spoke in a workshop session. “We did this with no playbook, no role model, and no guide,” she said. “We had to figure it out.”

The workshops and breakout sessions were designed to help other Maryland institutions across the state understand what it will take to scale up and sustain OERs at there schools.

In another session, which focused on research and evaluation, a questioner wanted to know if universities should move completely to open educational resources. “We’re working on it,” said Richard Sebastian, director of the OER degree initiative at Achieving the Dream.

The primary kink which needs to be ironed out, according to Hasib, is the matter of portability. Once students complete a course, they tend to lose access to the resources.

“A single classroom may have hundreds of OERs, and downloading all of them can be cumbersome,” Hasib said. “Even though students can download all of them, the resources lose a lot of value when they lose context and logical order.”

Many, including President Miyares, remain very optimistic about the future of OERs. “The world is changing. We are changing with it, and thanks in no small part to the careful thought and leadership of those assembled here today, we look forward to a future that is truly bright with possibility,” he said.