In this blog, Mark Jenkins and Boyoung Chae detail the vital benefits of using a data-driven approach in OER initiatives to promote affordability and student success for Washington’s Community and Technical Colleges. Their approach helped to meet two important goals:

  1. Meet students’ needs for learning which courses use free or “low-cost” resources, which aids them in making selections that save them money.
  2. Meet administrative needs for the tracking of usage, assessing success, and developing policies for OER implementation.

They remind us that data and assessment are powerful components in identifying and initiating positive change at the community and technical college level. Enjoy their insights!

-Erin Walton, contract editor for WCET

In Washington State, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) is the coordination agency for system policy, shared resources, and collaborative initiatives. SBCTC’s OER initiative, which has been underway for nearly a decade, is a key component of our system’s ethos of resource sharing as way to support colleges’ efforts to make high quality, affordable curriculum available to all students. In SBCTC’s Education
Division, the office of Educational Technology and Open Education is charged with developing the infrastructure of research, policy, and process to support these efforts.

The rich collaboration between the agency and the colleges has resulted in a highly motivated community of practice made up of thousands of faculty, staff and student advocates for OER, and textbook affordability across the state.

Study 1. Assessing the needs

At SBCTC, efforts have focused on a multi-layered research program designed to ensure that our system-wide initiatives are deeply rooted in data-driven insights about what students and colleges need to promote success in open education. A comprehensive study of perceptions of OER in our system in 2015 revealed remarkable findings that continue to drive SBCTC OER initiatives.

Screenshot of Class search page from Tacoma Community College in Washington.
Class search page from Tacoma Community College in Washington.

One of the most important findings to emerge from this research indicated that students were finding it difficult to consistently locate courses using OER or other affordable materials. The means to identify and mark those classes at or before the point of registration have been beyond the capacity of many colleges. Because of this, OER based and affordable classes were not consistently supporting students’ ability to manage cost by making informed choices. Moreover, definitions and standards for OER and affordability varied across the system.

Study 2. Establishing a policy for OER labeling

In 2016, this insight led to a second study.  SBCTC, with the help of system governance and student groups throughout the state, sought to identify consensus definitions and criteria for labelling OER-based courses in a consistent manner across all 34 colleges. The research led to a statewide policy for coding such courses. Soon after these codes were created, legislation passed in Washington state requiring OER information to be available at the time of registration. With the OER Code already established as policy by SBCTC, colleges were well-prepared to implement the requirement set forth in the statutes (E2SHB 1375 & RCW 28B.50.789).

Study 3. Establishing the threshold for Low-Cost labeling

During the implementation of the OER code, it became evident that the goal of informing student choice could best be fulfilled by enabling them to also identify courses that used affordable course materials, such as library materials, inexpensive textbooks, regardless of whether or not those materials included OER. Consequently, a new code was proposed to tag courses using low-cost materials. The first step in the developing a low-cost code and policy required SBCTC to understand how students would define low-cost and to propose a threshold value for affordability.

In partnership with the Washington Community & Technical Colleges Student Association (WACTCSA), SBCTC created a survey to define the threshold. Based on responses from over 10,000 students statewide, the plurality choice for the low-cost threshold is $50 or less.

These findings were discussed by college executive staff in system governance commissions and the $50.00 threshold was approved and added to the state coding manual.

Study 4. Establishing a policy for Low-Cost labeling

With the Low-Cost threshold identified, SBCTC surveyed faculty and staff in April 2018 to gather feedback on the implementation guidelines for the Low-Cost code. A total of 630 faculty members and college administrators responded. The report released the results of the survey and shares the revised name and criteria based on the feedback received.


Washington community and technical colleges’ journey in establishing OER and Low Cost code.


Benefits of the data-driven approach

The top three benefits of using a data-driven approach are as follows:

Helps to build more relevant and usable policy: The data-driven process described above helps meet key stakeholders –faculty, administrators, and students — where they are, in real time. Policy guideline should be evaluated by its relevance and usability in actual teaching practice. This can only be achieved with careful observation of these practices that is informed by robust data collection.

Helps to involve stakeholders: A brand-new course labeling system could be perceived as an onerous imposition on faculty members and college administrators. Providing opportunities for the faculty, administrators, and students to participate in the research from the beginning gives them a sense of ownership and collective responsibility.

Helps to promote the policy: When each process is documented in the form of a research finding, it enables better communication about progress to stakeholders. It is easy to show the logical relations between the steps and how each step informs the next.

In the end

Establishing a brand-new coding system for a non-traditional and evolving domain such as OER could be a daunting task for any system. However, when data guides the process, it can help maintain focus on the goal and form productive relationships with stakeholders. Data can also provide the strongest possible platform for informed decision making.


Mark Jenkins, Ph.D.
Director, Educational Technology & Open Education
Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges





Boyoung Chae, Ph.D.
Policy Associate, Educational Technology & Open Education
Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges



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