OER-based Degrees: Momentum

Fifteen years ago MIT announced its OpenCourseWare project. Above all else, this groundbreaking project demonstrated that an institution can openly share it’s core instructional resources without materially harming itself. Inspired by MIT’s example, hundreds of other institutions around the world began openly publishing the resources they created in support of their courses. Of critical importance is the fact that neither MIT nor any of the hundreds of other schools that launched OCW initiatives has ever reported suffering a decrease in enrollments because of its program of open sharing. Creating and sharing OER did not harm their ability to succeed in accomplishing their core missions – the education of their students. And there are many reasons to believe that their efforts in creating and sharing OER actually advanced their core missions. However, by the end of the decade growth of new programs had slowed and I haven’t heard of any new OCW initiatives launching in the last several years.

Over a decade after MIT broke ground with OCW, Tidewater Community College broke new ground with its Z Degree. Rather than committing to create and share its own OER as MIT and others had done over a decade earlier, Tidewater committed to adopt, adapt, and reuse OER instead of commercial educational resources across all the elective and required courses necessary to earn one of it’s most popular degrees. This initiative instantly cut the cost to graduate by 25% and greatly increased faculty’s pedagogical freedom. Like MIT OCW before it, the Tidewater Z Degree proved inspirational:

  • Almost immediately Northern Virginia Community College offered two OER-based degrees.
  • Shortly thereafter, the Virginia Community College System created its Zx23 program, providing support for every community college in the Commonwealth to create an OER-based degree.
  • A few weeks ago Achieving the Dream announced a major initiative in which 38 community colleges across the US will completely replace the commercial instructional materials in their courses with open educational resources (OER).
  • Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the state’s budget for 2016-2017, including a $5M allocation (see p. 18) for the creation of OER-based degrees (see SEC. 16. Article 4) at community colleges across California. This funding will facilitate the creation of another 25 OER-based degrees at CA community colleges.

Just as we’ve seen rates of adoption increase over successive generations of technological innovations, the same seems to be happening in open education. OER-based degrees are spreading across institutions much more rapidly than OCWs did. This is truly extraordinary. It’s quite easy to imagine half of all US community colleges offering an OER-based degree by 2020, and not hard to imagine even more colleges doing so (or the same number of colleges each offering more than one OER-based degree).