Faculty are Losing Interest in Adopting OER

I missed this when it was first published, but a few months ago Ithaka S+R shared the results of their Ithaka S+R  US Faculty Survey 2021. The survey went out to 145,099 randomly selected faculty members across the US and over 5% of invitees responded. I was particularly interested in the survey’s findings about the state of open educational resources in US higher education. Below, I’ll share these results, the authors’ interpretations of the results, and some of my own thoughts about the results. (The images and quotes from the survey are (C) Ithaka S+R, 2022 and are licensed CC BY-NC.)

The faculty survey asked the following question in 2018 and again in 2021:

Which, if any, of the following open educational resources have you created and/or used in your courses? Please check all that apply.

The authors then explain these results as follows:

There has been a notable increase in the amount of faculty creating and using OER since 2018 (see Figure 39). Overall, more faculty members use OER than create them, though the share of faculty who have created any OER increased has also increased [sic] along with the share of faculty who have used OER. In 2021, 41 percent of faculty reported using open textbooks, 38 percent have used open video lectures, and 26 percent have used open course modules (see Figure 39).

Given the amount of video on the internet (e.g., YouTube) which is not “open” as that word is used in the phrase “open educational resources”, I find it HIGHLY unlikely that almost 40% of faculty found and used videos that were either in the public domain or which were licensed under a CC license granting users the 5R permissions. Which means that when faculty answered this question they were probably actually answering the question “which of the following free online resources have you created and/or used in your courses?” And honestly, which was more likely to happen during the emergency shift to online learning caused by the pandemic – faculty were finding and incorporating any reasonable quality free resource they could find online? Or faculty were taking the time to carefully vet the licensing of the resources they found and specifically chose OER to include in their courses?

In other words, I think this question likely dramatically overestimates that actual amount of OER use happening in higher education, if by “OER use” you mean (as I believe most OER advocates do) “OER adopted as the primary learning resource instead of an expensive proprietary resource.”

It’s also the case that, given the way the question is worded, using a chapter from an open textbook as a supplementary reading in a course where you adopted a $200 textbook would result in a “yes” answer under “open textbooks” here. Which would lead to an even greater overestimation of OER use. I believe a more informative version of the question would have including language like “as the primary required learning resource.”

I found these questions asked in 2018 and again in 2021 even more interesting:

Figure 40. Please read the following statements and indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with each.

The authors then explain these results as follows:

Unintuitively, while more faculty are using and creating OER since 2018, interest in using and creating OER has declined in that same period. In 2018, 57 percent agreed they were interested in using OER compared to 51 percent in 2021. We see a similar decrease for those interested in creating and publishing OER–30 percent of faculty in 2018 were interested in creating OER in 2018 compared to 25 percent in 2021 (see Figure 40). This may be due to the continued lack of incentive, either monetary or through new professional development opportunities, for adopting OER into their courses.

Note that Question 39 did not, in fact, ask faculty if they “are using” OER; it asked if they “have used” OER. That distinction is incredibly important, because I believe it points to another possible explanation for the change in level of interest the survey found in using OER (whether that means actual OER or simply free online resources). Some of the faculty who adopted and used those resources simply aren’t interested in doing it again. Compared to the full suite of supports and helps they’re used to getting from commercial publishers – not just the textbook content, but thousands of assessment items, Powerpoints to use in class, pacing guides for 15 and 8-week terms, analytics that help faculty track struggling students, etc. – the overwhelming majority of OER offer very little support for faculty. It is, objectively, more work for faculty when they switch from adopting a full courseware solution to using a free PDF. For example, if you switched from MyMathLab to an OpenStax book for college algebra, you would find yourself hand-grading a lot of homework the courseware used to grade for you. It’s not hard to understand why, having experienced all that additional manual work once, faculty would no longer be interested in adopting OER in the future. That’s how rates of “have used” OER can go up, while rates of “interested in using OER” can go down.

The authors’ explanation of why interest in adopting OER has dropped – that faculty aren’t being paid extra to adopt them – is itself an implicit acknowledgement of how much extra work it is for faculty to adopt and use OER in their classes. No one has to provide incentives for faculty to adopt publisher materials for their classes – faculty are intrinsically motivated to adopt those resources because they save faculty time and effort. Demanding extra pay before adopting OER only makes sense if you believe it will take extra work to adopt and use OER (compared to adopting and using publisher materials).

Of course it’s possible to adopt OER within the courseware context, integrated with the complete set of supports faculty want, but many OER advocates reject that way of using OER because there are some costs associated with it.

In years to come I expect that interest in adopting and using “naked OER” – just the openly licensed content – will continue to decline until only early adopter-types are left. The only real hope I see for a future in which OER adoption goes to scale within US higher education is one in which OER are integrated and combined with all the other helps and supports faculty want. Because faculty decide what gets adopted and used in class.