Today marks the finale for our 2019 WOW Award series. The WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards honor member institutions and organizations that develop technology-based solutions to challenging educational needs. WOW award 2019 logo

As we mentioned last week, we have three outstanding award winning initiatives this year: the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s OER Council, Granite State College, and Rio Salado College.

Our final entry into the series is from the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s OER Council. We’re excited to hear from them about the keys to their successful statewide OER grant program implementation.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

The affordability crisis in higher education impacts Colorado, where over 60 percent of students enrolled at public institutions graduate with debt. The average debt is $25,877 for a bachelor’s degree and $13,374 for an associates degree. The rapidly growing field of open educational resources (OER) offer student relief from the high costs of textbooks, software and other course materials, and fit with the State of Colorado strategic goal of investing in affordability and innovation for higher education. While widespread adoption of OER will not completely eliminate student debt, it has the potential to substantially reduce it for graduates of both two- and four-year colleges in our state. In 2017, the Colorado legislature was motivated to act and created an investigatory OER Council, which encouraged the creation of a statewide OER initiative in its November 2017 report. Colorado House Bill 18-1331 crafted the recommendations into law, creating a new iteration of the OER Council and provided nearly $3 million worth of additional funding for OER development over three years.

State of CO flag

While we are not the first to engage in policy-driven action around OER, we bring different needs and resources than those of others who charted these paths before us. The OER Council’s vision for the state of Colorado has the potential to impact many thousands of students every year and campuses throughout the state.

We are proud that the Council has contextualized national best practices to meet our state’s needs. Here we share three key features of our work that we feel have been centerpieces of our success.

Key #1: Create a Team with Diverse Expertise

Legislation designated the professional composition of the OER Council, creating a group of experts and stakeholders that has been a key component of the council’s success. The diverse blend of expertise of the Council provides both depth and breadth of perspectives on OER. Bringing together faculty, librarians, students, administrators, and instructional design experts (who represent a variety of contexts including K12, community colleges, regional universities, large research institutions and two college systems), ensures that Colorado is considering OER in the broadest context.

Photo of the members of the OER council.

These representatives work side-by-side to administer a $500,000 grant each year, hold an annual OER conference, develop communications to raise awareness with stakeholders statewide, research and advise on policy to support OER adoption, and conduct outreach to all institutions of higher education in the state. With support from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE), and the state legislature, the OER Council is driving innovative and adaptable approaches to OER adoption across the state

The many different roles council members have is an incredible strength. Our experience and varied backgrounds allow us to anticipate where problems may arise ­– even if one member doesn’t understand some part of the higher education system or experience, another council member will have insight and expertise and can help refine the discussion, so we are more effective in what we do and what we support.

Key #2: Find Supporting Resources

The OER Council members are full-time faculty, librarians, administrators, students, and technologists. Many of us had never had contact with CDHE before this initiative began. Brittany Dudek, Library Coordinator at Colorado Community Colleges Online, shares,

“To be perfectly honest, I was quite intimidated walking off the elevator and into the CDHE conference room for the first time. While the common threads of OER and academic positions connected us all, the CDHE was a bit of an unknown. What I found was a department filled with passionate and like-minded individuals, who were working in education for exactly the same reasons I was: to help provide students with opportunities to achieve their goals, to change lives, and for the common good.”

The movement and community of OER is growing and expanding, and we’ve found centralizing the support structure for the OER movement in Colorado at CDHE has been critical for our success. Without the support of a dedicated staff person, the volunteer efforts of the council members could well have come to naught, for lack of time to do the basic but essential tasks of keeping everything organized and coordinated.

The 2017 Council deliberately requested funding for staff support as an important element of a successful state-wide OER initiative. CDHE staff provide the meeting and event support, as well as high level project management for all Council activities. This staffing has been a major factor in the execution of OER events, advocacy, and professional development opportunities. There was a series of events for Open Education week including a statewide conference that attracted more than 220 attendees statewide in May 2019. These activities have continued to foster the spirited enthusiasm with which higher educational professionals perceive OER in the state of Colorado.

The modest cost of the position at CDHE has leveraged an extraordinary amount of involvement already, leading to $3.4 million in initial projected student savings, and we believe the efforts might falter during this early adoption phase of OER in Colorado if not for the ongoing assistance and resources that have brought us thus far. Locating and leveraging supporting resources is essential to the success of this work.

Key #3: Maintain a Spirit of Collaboration and Focus on Students

The focus of our movement has been the impact of our grants on our students, and the growing OER community in Colorado, rather than on single institutions. This commitment is evident in the Council’s intentional involvement of student voices on the Council and in their collective work to highlight the student perspective in recommendations delivered to the state legislature. Alana Lipscomb enthusiastically served on the OER council while a student at Pikes Peak Community College.

“When I was asked to be a part of the OER Council, part of a group of involved individuals breaking down barriers to help the forward progression of education and college affordability for students, it was a no brainer!”

Attendees at a conference pose for a photo holding aprons that read "OER"
Attendees at one of the annual OER Conference in CO

Lobna Alsrraj, council member and University of Northern Colorado student, views her role on the OER council as an…

“…advocate for the students and to provide them with the resources needed so they can advocate for themselves on their campuses.”

A student focus was instrumental in convincing elected officials to sanction and fund this initiative as a priority in the higher education agenda for the state of Colorado and continues to be a vital component of OER Council functioning.

Promoting equity and improving student experiences are major motivators across the council. We all realized OER saves students money, and some council members brought awareness of how using OER could empower instructors. As we learned more, we also discovered the cost barrier impacts students’ course selection, success in courses, and progression through their degree. This work matters immensely to students, which keeps us collectively motivated.

Dustin Fife, Director of Library Services at Western Colorado University, has worked at public libraries and at public universities of various sizes.

“While I hope for systemic change that makes education affordable and accessible to all, I am drawn to open education and OER because any faculty member can help their students with it. Working in libraries, I have seen how shared collections, course reserves and accessible programming change lives.”

Collectively we have demonstrated a steadfast commitment to addressing affordability through promotion and implementation of OER, all while prioritizing the needs of Colorado’s postsecondary students. Insistent collaborative and collegial approaches, combined with stakeholder-driven priorities, trust in subject matter experts, and central project facilitation represent a blueprint that could be adapted by others for statewide OER work.

For more on the CDHE Colorado OER Council and their work, visit their website or read the report.

Brittany Dudek
Brittany Dudek
Library Coordinator
Current Chair of the OER Council

Emily Regan
Dr. Emily Ragan
Professor of Chemistry
Former Chair of the OER Council

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