Making College Affordable


Kathleen Ives, DM, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director and Jennifer Mathes, PhD, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Online Learning Consortium


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A hot topic for politicians, students, parents and educators continues to revolve around ways that we can make college more affordable.  This also framed the most recent conversation at OLC’s Collaborate San Francisco held with academic partner California State University.  With a focus on open educational resources (OER), Collaborate attendees heard from speakers Gerry Hanley,  Executive Director of MERLOT and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Technology Services California State University, Office of the Chancellor; TJ Bliss, Program Officer, Education, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Dianne Van Hook, Chancellor, Santa Clarita Community College District about innovation, regulation, outcomes analytics, and how to sustain the affordable learning environment.  

In breakout sessions, you could feel the creativity and, candidly, passion flowing as further discussion ensued on themes such as best practices, how to encourage adoption, and other innovative ideas.  As is typical for an OLC Collaborate event, conversations spilled into the hallways during breaks between sessions as attendees sometimes found it difficult to interrupt an engaging discussion focused on finding solutions to their educational challenges. The Twittersphere was also going strong as participants shared their thoughts and lessons learned from the presenters.

So the question now is how do we keep this conversation going beyond those original discussions to include the broader higher education population?  In addition, how do we, as a community that cares about student success, help to support widespread adoption of quality materials?  There are no easy solutions and many unanswered questions yet to be addressed.  

What was apparent for those in attendance is that there are lessons to be learned from our colleagues in California. In January of 2013 the face of higher education was forever changed for the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU) and the University of California systems when California legislators directed CSU to establish and administer the California Digital Open Source Library and encouraged further collaboration among the three entities by creating the California Open Educational Resources Council. The initiatives were funded by the state of California with matching funds provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Why should you care? In a report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Atkins, Brown and Hammond (2007) defined OER as full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software and any other tools, materials, and techniques used to support access to knowledge. California has taken this definition to a whole new level. The three systems are working together to provide everyone easy access to OER resources through their California Open Online Library for Education, known as COOL4Ed. The site is essentially a one-stop shop for those interested in finding solutions to costs and sustainability problems placed on all levels of education such as outdated technology, inadequate teaching materials, proprietary learning content that cannot be easily updated, customized, or personalized to meet diverse educational needs, and college textbook costs which are contributing to the growing debt placed on students.

What we also know is that there are many opportunities to engage stakeholders at all levels.  This can start by educating faculty and staff on how to use and where to find quality resources while keeping the dialogue open around innovative practices.  Developing an OER initiative can, and should be, a collaborative effort that recognizes that high quality resources may be difficult to find for all disciplines.  It requires contributions at the institution and faculty levels to commit to sharing effective instructional materials through an open forum.  This also means that there have to be sufficient repositories, like MERLOT or COOL4Ed, to cultivate and maintain such collateral.

With the new Trump Administration, there is an opportunity at the highest levels of our government to increase visibility around the issue of access to higher education and make it more affordable by embracing OER initiatives.  At a time when options for tuition-free college are being considered, or implemented, in various states, OER is one way to bridge the gap on affordability for all students regardless of the type of institution they choose to attend.  

Higher education needs to implement at scale the tools and best practices enabling students to best navigate their educational journey. The challenges facing higher ed are not insignificant; but there are many more opportunities to ensure student success through OER if institutions are willing to share resources and collaborate as evidenced by the California State systems.

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