Fostering Inclusion and Accessibility through the Implementation of Open Educational Resources in Online Adult Learning Coursework

Concurrent Session 7
Research Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

Although graduate students constitute only 15% of all students enrolled in higher education, they are responsible for approximately 40% of the total $1.5 trillion U.S. student loan debt (Miller, 2020). Numerous researchers have found that high levels of graduate student borrowing not only restricts career prospects, but it frequently compels students to leave online graduate programs early (e.g., Pabian, 2018). Therefore, open educational resources (OERs) have been proposed as one viable initiative to reduce the cost of online coursework. This study presents findings on student satisfaction and potential barriers to effectiveness from a project to implement OERs in six online classes in an Ed.D. higher education program.

Extended Abstract

Program Description

A faculty and student research panel will present practice-oriented findings concerning the benefits and potential barriers to the implementation of open educational resources (OERs) for online course for adult learners. We will engage our participants in conversation about relevant issues concerning OERs - including financial considerations, institutional barriers, and our findings on delivering online diverse and inclusive resources for a graduate adult learner population. Additionally, we will facilitate dialogue with program participants through a brainstorming activity on how to promote and advocate for OERs in online coursework.

Problem Statement

Much attention is rightfully paid to the financial challenges that undergraduate students face in attaining a college degree, particularly since federal student loan debt has risen from $250 billion to more than $1.5 trillion over the past sixteen years (Looney et al., 2020). However, it is less widely recognized that graduate students, including those earning degrees in student affairs, are responsible for 40% of all student loans issued every year, even though they constitute only 15% of all students enrolled in higher education (Miller, 2020). Two factors explain why graduate students are responsible for such a disproportionate share of student loan debt: 1) the widespread desire for graduate credentials in a highly competitive labor market (Cottom, 2017) and 2) the rise of for-profit education to meet demand, particularly from non-traditional students who work full-time jobs and need for flexibility that an online education can provide (Gold, 2019).

Consequently, student debt at for-profit institutions has risen precipitously since the 2016-17 academic year, and it has mostly impacted non-traditional learners who are trying to improve their skills and professional career outcomes through graduate credentials (Shireman & Miller, 2020). Gardner and Holley (2011), in a qualitative study of first-generation students in doctoral programs, stated “that the attainment of the doctoral degree would eventually mitigate [students’] financial concerns, as they expected their professional careers would bring financial stability to their lives” (p. 87). Unfortunately, what Gardner and Holley found, as well as numerous subsequent researchers (e.g., Belasco, et al., 2014; Doran et al., 2016; Pabian et al., 2018), is that high levels of graduate student borrowing not only often restricts career prospects, but it frequently compels students to leave graduate programs before they have attained their desired credential.

Conducted Research

This research was conducted over the period of one calendar year, representing three academic semesters. Six of 16 courses in a fully online doctoral program for working adults were converted to zero or low cost (<$40) materials courses. At the end of each course, multiple data collection methods were employed to obtain student perceptions and practices related to the course conversions. Quantitative data were derived from a Likert-scale survey instrument that was modified from a validated existing tool sponsored by the University System of Georgia. Students who completed each of the revised classes received the survey at the end of each semester, and it assessed three key factors: 1) their satisfaction with the overall course content and structure; 2) their level of engagement with the new course materials; and 3) the appropriateness of the new course materials for their professional development. Qualitative data was derived from voluntary focus groups with students at the end of each semester. These data offered greater depth about student experiences with the new course design and materials, as well as issues related to resource equity and access. The focus group protocol was semi-structured to encourage dialogue and allow for unexpected insights, rather than to compare answers across groups.

This study presents findings on student satisfaction and potential barriers to effectiveness from a project to implement OERs in six online classes in an Ed.D. higher education program. Findings indicate that student satisfaction with online OERs was high, with praise for 1) diverse readings which facilitated greater engagement and creativity and 2) public scholarship which introduced contemporary issues related to the program’s commitment to social justice and equity. The study also addresses findings which indicate that accessibility in OER programs may be hindered by students’ need to print lengthy readings and a lack of institutional accessibility to cost-prohibitive scholarly online publications.

Our Presentations Goals:

Goal 1 is to encourage student savings through the implementation of OERs, thereby increasing student success. We created a curriculum of fully no-cost or low-cost courses through the adoption of publicly available readings, as well as university resources. These changes provided significant savings to adult learners who typically have fewer opportunities for financial aid.

Goal 2 is to facilitate discussion on how participants can improve the overall diversity and inclusion of online open access course materials. Through the use of open-education resources, instructors can utilize a greater diversity of readings and multiple types of content (e.g., op-eds and policy briefs) to meet course objectives and outcomes, which is more aligned with online curriculum development. Diverse content is particularly important for a multidisciplinary field like higher education, which draws upon materials from psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences for a greater understanding of complex policies, institutional dynamics, and research methods. Additionally, we found that OER can introduce students to a broader array of voices and perspectives, notably when programs advocate social justice and equity in their teaching.

Goal 3 encourages session participants to consider how they might leverage data to improve student satisfaction, engagement, and active learning with OERs. Our data indicates that online coursework should provide students with an opportunity to identify areas of personal interest, engage in original research, and demonstrate mature critical thinking skills on complex topics that rarely have easily identifiable “right” or “wrong” answers. Therefore, we contend that course materials should move away from a “transmission of knowledge” mindset and embrace discussion, inquiry, and creativity by incorporating multiple readings that cover current societal events in higher education and tackle provocative and difficult topics in higher education from a variety of perspectives. As evidenced by our data, our online curricular changes resulted in greater student satisfaction, engagement, and active learning, while creating more equitable access to resources and more diverse subject materials.