Equity, inclusion and the use of Open Educational Resources (OER)

The reason sports teams switch sides at half-time has to do with ensuring both teams have an equal advantage in the event one side of the field has a higher slope than the other, or one team maybe faces the sun, or runs against the wind, and so on. This is why it is necessary to “level the playing field”.

men playing soccer

CC-BY Ninian Reid on Flickr

For many low-income, minority, and part-time students the playing field may not be all that level. The cost of attending college takes a larger bite out of the low-income household budget and includes more than tuition, fees, and textbooks. Attending school part-time may mean fewer hours available for employment, increased transportation costs, child-care expenses, and more.

A recent study at the University of Georgia, Athens (UGA) looked at outcomes for students taking courses using traditional commercial textbooks versus open educational resources (OER). The study considered student income, ethnicity, gender, and full vs part-time status.

This research suggests OER is an equity strategy for higher education: providing all students with access to course materials on the first day of class serves to level the academic playing field in course settings. – Covert & Watson

Researchers, Nicholas B. Colvard (University of Georgia) and C. Edward Watson (American Association of Colleges and Universities) looked at learning outcomes for 21,822 UGA students with 10,141 enrolled in courses using OER and 11,681 using traditional commercial textbooks. While previous studies have investigated OER and student achievement, they did not break out the results by household income, ethnicity, or part-time status.

For the purposes of the UGA study, income status was described as Pell-eligible. Results of the study found students enrolled in OER sections (both Pell and non-Pell eligible students) earned significantly higher final grades. For Pell-eligible students enrolled in OER courses, however, the average final grade was significantly higher than for non-Pell in non-OER courses. Similar results were found in regards to course withdrawal and failure rates (DFW). Both Pell and non-Pell student groups using OER experienced lower DFW rates than those using commercial texts.

Both white and non-white student groups enrolled in courses using OER saw improved grades and lower DFW rates. However, in the case of part-time vs full-time, those students enrolled in OER courses showed significantly more improvement in both final grade and DFW rates than their full-time counterparts.

Admittedly, the results of this study, completed at a large research university, are not generalizable for the average community college. Nevertheless, the demographics of the students most benefiting from the use of OER in this study, matches a large percentage of the community college student demographic. These results hold promise that OER may help to level the playing field for many underrepresented students.


Covard, N. B. & Watson, C.E. (2018). The impact of Open Educational Resources on various student success metrics. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Vol 30 No 2. http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE3386.pdf

In praise of the open-book exam

Whether or not students should be required to take proctored exams in an online course has been debated for as long as there have been online courses and I suspect it will not be resolved anytime soon. Nevertheless, there has been a good deal written about the subject that is worth considering.

Open book online exam

CC-BY-NC by Jared Stein on Flickr

A recent study compared proctored and non-proctored student outcomes in online courses. Lee William Daffin, Jr. and Ashley A. Jones from Washington State University, found that with the non-proctored online exams, students took about twice as long to complete their exams and performed between 10% and 15% better than students taking proctored exams.

Despite the instructions that the exam was to be taken closed-book, we might reason that students spent the extra time looking up answers in the text or searching online. Again, this brings up the issue of how to prevent cheating in an online course without requiring students to visit the testing center.

Daffin and Jones suggest trying the following methods to discourage cheating:

  • Explaining the technology used to discourage cheating (e.g. Safe Assign, Bb Monitor)
  • Creating a large enough test bank from which to draw questions
  • Randomizing both questions and answers
  • Including essay questions
  • Posting class and/ or institutional policies and penalties for cheating
  • Shortening the time frames to complete tests
  • Having students sign Code of Conduct / Honor statements

Daffin and Jones offer yet one more option…

A final possibility is to make online exams open notes/book from the start but increase the difficulty of such exams so that they are not simply testing the recollection of facts (Feller, 1994; Williams & Wong, 2009; Stowell, 2015). Though students would be permitted to utilize outside sources, eliminating student misconduct issues, they would still need a good understanding of the material to be able to accurately apply it and could not simply look up answers as they took the exam. – L.W.Daffin & A.A.Jones

In another study, Beth Johanns, Amber Dinkins, and Jill Moore, from Indiana State University, looked at the research around open-book vs closed-book exams and found there are some unique advantages for student learning with both formats. Open-book exams, in particular, were found to help learners develop critical thinking skills. While the closed-book required students expend more time and effort in preparation for the exam, they were also more likely to cram and therefore rely on short-term memorization. On the other hand, open-book exams were shown to engage learners more deeply by encouraging them to gather and critically analyze information – oftentimes from multiple sources.

In their study, Johanns, Dinkins, & Moore explored yet a third type of exam – collaborative testing. In this approach, students prepared for a closed-book exam but were permitted to collaborate with other students while completing the examination. This approach has been shown to promote creative thinking and increased metacognition.

Finally, it is clear there are both opportunities and challenges with any single approach to online assessment. Perhaps the best solution is to provide multiple options. Rather than requiring students to schedule weekly visits to the testing center, consider reducing the closed-book to the midterm and/or final exams and maybe mix things up with open-book and collaborative exams in the interim.


Daffin, Jr., L.W., & Jones, A.A. (2018). Comparing student performance on proctored and non- proctored exams in online psychology courses. Online Learning, 22(1), 131-145. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.107


Johanns, B., Dinkins, A., & Moore, J. (2017). A systematic review comparing open-book and closed-book examinations: Evaluating effect on development of critical thinking skills. Nurse Education in Practice, 27, 89-94. doi.:10.1016/j.nepr.2017.08.018



What’s important to online students

In a recent study Tony Bates shares what online students value about online learning.

The top nine aspects include:

  • Mobile-friendly content
  • Access to career services advising
  • Positive return on investment
  • Innovative aspects that decrease the cost and time to degree (competency-based, stackable certificates, OER)
  • Interactivity with peers
  • Multiple channels that provide information about courses and programs (both traditional and digital)
  • Flexible and personalized programming
  • Flexible and personalized delivery options (continuous enrollment, accelerated programming, flexible credit transfer)

The full article can be found here…


Succession Planning and the Distance Learning Administrator

Participants of ITC Leadership Academy in session

ITC Leadership Academy


A little over eight years ago, I began a new job as dean of Learning Technologies at a community college. For the previous twelve years I had been employed at a four-year institution – most recently as Coordinator of Instructional Technologies. The new position brought for me a number of firsts: moving to a new place, working in a community college setting, and taking on more administrative responsibilities.

One of the first things I did in my new role was to seek out a professional network.  The Instructional Technology Council proved to be the network I was seeking. I approached the provost suggesting we join the ITC and asked if he would sponsor me for the ITC Leadership Academy. He agreed.

The Leadership Academy was held in Boulder, Colorado that year. Although the curriculum was fast-paced and we covered a lot of ground in just a few days, there was also time for participants and the faculty to spend time together and to get to know one another. I am grateful for the ITC Leadership Academy which gave me the opportunity to connect with colleagues in similar roles from across North America – many who have become good friends.

Whether you’re looking to grow professionally in the field of distance learning and instructional technologies, or you are a distance education administrator looking to develop your team, I strongly recommend the ITC Leadership Academy. Applications are now being accepted for this summer’s academy to be held July 30 – August, 1 2018 in St. Pete, FL.

For more information: http://www.itcnetwork.org/aws/ITCN/pt/sp/academy_about

Whether synchronous online course activities meet accessibility guidelines may depend on how you use them.

Man web-conferencing using an iPhone

CC-BY Public.Resource.Org on Flickr

Adding synchronous activities to your asynchronous online class can help to foster social presence and instructor immediacy. Using such tools as Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc. can add an element of interactivity and engagement to the online course that might otherwise be missing. Web-conferencing can be used to prepare students for upcoming assignments, review recent material, offer virtual office hours, and more…

but what about accessibility?

Our campus recently adopted a policy that essentially requires all online instruction meet accessibility guidelines. While our facilities department is well versed in ensuring campus physical learning spaces meet ADA requirements, faculty may struggle with how to approach accessibility within the virtual learning environment. When the disabilities office notifies an instructor that a student in their class needs further accommodation they also provide the direction and support necessary to meet the student’s needs.

Universal design vs. Accommodation

To accommodate a specific student with a disability is to retrofit instruction to meet that student’s needs. However, by applying Universal Design principles we anticipate a wide range of learners’ needs and design the instruction and learning environment accordingly.

Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities.

Employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will assure full access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. DOIT Center

So how can we go about ensuring online synchronous activities are accessible to all students regardless of ability? Part of the answer may depend on how the synchronous tools are being used.

Several web-conferencing solutions permit attendees to participate by dialing in on their phones rather than using computer VoIP. A phone connection may be used with other devices and services – such as Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) – to translate voice to text. Also by dialing in for the web-conference rather than using the browser or app, students can avoid exceeding their data cap when they are not connected via WiFi.

When presenting to the entire class in real-time, provide links to accessible digital materials in advance for participants to review and follow along during the session. Provide detailed descriptions and annotations to go along with any images, charts and graphs used within the presentation. Take the time to describe the significance of each graphic in detail during the presentation. These practices will also help when transcribing or captioning the session for recordings after the event.

By using the chat feature provided in most web-conferencing solutions all participants can submit questions. Assign a moderator to keep track of the chat window and type in the presenter’s answers to posted questions. Whether a question is being asked by someone in the lecture hall or via chat, it is always a good idea to repeat the question before responding.

Rather than using only video and voice features, offer chat and/or text messaging as options for conferences with individual students. Be sure the information on how and when to connect is also made accessible. Web links should provide a description and any further instructions in plain text (as opposed to images, arrows, highlighted text, etc.) to be read by screen-reader software. Include a phone number in the invite as well in the event description for hearing impaired students to access via TRS services.

By taking the time to create accessible web-conferences we not only accommodate the student with a visual or hearing impairment, we make the presentation more usable for all participants.


DOIT Center: Universal design vs. accommodation

Federal Communications Commission: Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)

W3C: Understanding WCAG 2.0 – Time-based Media

IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center: Overcoming accessibility challenges of web-conferencing


Virtual office hours revisited

Asynchronous online learning is often considered the gold standard of distance learning, as it is the most convenient and flexible format in regards to scheduling. Learners can interact with the content, instructor, and classmates at anytime and from anywhere. However, a frequent complaint of new-to-online students is the sense of isolation often experienced in the virtual classroom.

Isolation - man sitting alone in the desert

Isolation CC-BY Henrik Dacquin on Flickr

One of the ways instructors can help to mitigate this isolation is to leverage technology to improve instructor immediacy. Such practices might include posting short videos of themselves explaining a particularly challenging concept or going over an assignment. By providing audio feedback comments along with writing assignments, students begin to recognize their instructors as real people. Another important practice is to offer students the option of connecting in real-time using virtual office hours.

Patrick Lowenthal has been studying and writing about social presence in the online classroom for a number of years. In a recent paper, entitled, Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses, he and colleagues Joanna Dunlap and Chareen Snelson took a look at how virtual office hours might be improved using a design-based research (DBR) approach.

Lowenthal questioned whether it was a good use of his time in earlier attempts offering virtual office house due to lack of student participation. However, more recently he began to consider revisiting the practice, and to look  at ways to increase student attendance and learner engagement.

By changing up the branding, limiting the number of sessions, and tying an instructional component to the synchronous sessions, he and his colleagues discovered they could increase student participation from less than ten to around fifty percent. Students reported the sessions were a good use of their time and allowed them to get to know their instructor better (improved instructor immediacy).

The following findings / recommendations are from their study (shared with permission):

Orientation to live sessions

  1. Refer to virtual office hours using a more inviting title. For example, for more informal live sessions, select a name like Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave, and Around the Campfire. For more formal live sessions, consider titles such as Consultations, Design Studio, Conference Room, Headquarters, and Open Space.
  2. Inform students at the start of the semester when synchronous sessions are scheduled. 3. Inform students of the agenda for each live session in advance.
  3. Remind students of approaching live sessions in daily/weekly communications, such as via the announcements feature of a learning management system.
  4. Provide low-stakes opportunities for students to troubleshoot and get acquainted with the synchronous format and associated tools. For example, during the first few weeks of a course, have each student—or small groups of students—visit with you in Adobe Connect for the sole purpose of checking out tool functionality, and to hear and see each other laugh.
  5. Share a short recording of a live session with students new to live sessions so they can get a sense of how they work and what to expect in advance of participating in a live session.


  1. Consider students’ time zones when scheduling live sessions. Use a tool like Doodle, for example, to determine best times to meet.
  2. Schedule live sessions strategically; they do not need to be scheduled weekly. For example, schedule live sessions prior to the due dates of major deliverables or in advance of exams.
  3. Vary the day of the week and time of day. Consider scheduling two live sessions per week on different days and at different times of day.


  1. Be transparent with students as to your reasons for including live sessions in your online courses.
  2. Ask students to share questions in advance of live sessions so sessions may be tailored to meet specific goals, needs, and interests.
  3. Make live sessions relevant in terms of content and activity. Make sure the live sessions add value to the students’ learning experience in an online course. For example, include a brief direct-instruction component, demonstration, or guest speaker in each live session.
  4. Provide a comparable learning experience for those unable to attend a live session. For example, give those students specific questions/prompts to respond to while watching the recording.

Incentives and assessment

  1. Add incentives for attendance (e.g., require it or allow students to earn points), but provide options—equitable in terms of learning experience—for those who have schedule conflicts.
  2. Involve students in learning activities during synchronous sessions that support their work on projects, papers, and so on. For example, provide a lab demonstration that will help students complete their own experiments in the lab. Interaction
  3. Start each live session with a brief ice-breaker and/or get-to-know-you activity to help establish connections between and among instructor and students, and to get warmed up with the technology before launching into more coursework-oriented activities.
  4. Provide both informal and structured time and opportunity for students to interact with each other.


  1. Have students contribute to or determine “rules of engagement” for interacting with each other during live sessions.
  2. Model the type and level of interaction that supports student engagement during live sessions.
  3. Get students involved in the live meetings. For example, have them collaborate on a response to a problem of practice or peer review each other’s work.
  4. Ask for questions from students who are unable to attend, and respond to the questions during the live session.

Mitigating the sense of isolation that new-to-online learners often experience can help them to make the important connections and establish the support network they need to persist in meeting their educational goals. The full paper can be found in the reference section below.


P. Lowenthal, J. Dunlap, C. Snelson (2017). Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours. Online Learning Journal. Retrieved from https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/1285

Improving outcomes with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Over the past few years colleges have faced an increasing number of complaints from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) requiring their web content be made accessible to people with disabilities. Although the OCR complaints typically focus on publicly available web content, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all online instructional content meet accessibility guidelines. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) provides guidance on making web content accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities.

Usability + Accessibility = Successful Experience for All

Usability + Accessibility CC-BY J. Albert Bowden II on Flickr

Making course content accessible may at first seem a daunting task when faced with a lengthy list of rules or standards.  A recent article in the EDUCAUSE Review describes how University of Memphis integrated Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into their online course development process. The instructional design team at Memphis developed a three phase professional development plan that helps faculty look beyond compliance and focus on the “what, how, and why” of learning online.

“…we conducted a needs assessment and determined that requiring faculty to address accessibility in their online courses was easier for them if they focused on the pedagogical concepts of the UDL Representation principle and its guidelines rather than the technical concepts of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).”

At the heart of Universal Design for Learning is the idea that people learn in diverse ways and therefore benefit from multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

By providing multiple means of representation – diverse forms of media – learners are able to understand the material or concepts in ways that make the most sense to them individually. Material may be presented visually (text / images), or through auditory (voice messages / podcasts) means, or both (captioned video).

By providing multiple means of action or expression, learners can represent their understanding in different formats (e.g. writing, video / audio recordings, presentations, etc.) – providing them with personally meaningful ways to demonstrate acquired competencies.

By providing multiple means of engagement, learners can master the material according to their individual strengths and preferences. Some students work well in groups; others may prefer to work alone. Assignments that encourage students to apply their individual talents and abilities are more likely to engage students in active, authentic, and relevant learning.

Integrating UDL principles into both online faculty training and the course development process helps to equip online faculty with a proactive rather than reactive approach to supporting student accessibility and learning.


V. Cullifer (2017).  OCR Website Accessibility Complaints Hit Schools and Universities Digital Accessibility Digest,  Microassist

R. Bowery & L. Houston (2017).  Reaching All Learners by Leveraging Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses  EDUCAUSE Review

WC3 Recommendation (2008).  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0  WC3.org


S. Burgstahler (2017).  ADA Compliance for Online Course Design EDUCAUSE Review

Closing the gap between online and classroom student outcomes

For the past few years community colleges have shifted their focus from one of access to one of completion. Offering online programming is a great way to provide access to higher education but closing the gap between online and classroom student outcomes is an ongoing challenge.

Student studying at computer

eLearning CC-BY Wolfgang Greller on Flickr

Efforts on bridging the gap have mostly centered around learner characteristics: GPA / SAT scores, whether students have previous experience with online learning, their capacity for self-regulated learning (self-efficacy, time management, organizational skills), etc.. Although these can be helpful indicators in predicting online student achievement, another approach that offers promise focuses on the at-risk course.

Ferris State University has been offering Structured Learning Assistance (SLA) for the past 25 years focusing not on the at-risk student, but on the high-risk for failure course. Although this has not been offered as an online option the impact on student success has consistently meant better than a 10% higher pass rate than of those sections without supplemental instruction. By focusing on courses with a history of high failure and withdrawal rates SLA has been able to support students with an additional 45 hours of supplemental instruction.

A recent study at Borough of Manhattan Community College at CUNY looks at online course-level predictors of learning outcomes (Wladis et al 2015). The study found that there was a significant gap in course completion between online courses taken as electives and those that were required for a given major. Also lower-level courses had a much higher attrition rate than higher-level courses. The study suggests that interventions such as embedded supplemental instructional support (tutoring, mentoring, advising, extra technical assistance) within the more challenging courses could significantly improve – and possibly even eliminate – the performance gap between online and face-to-face outcomes.

A few years ago I attended the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) conference and sat in on a panel presentation describing strategies to keep students enrolled in online learning. The panel was represented by faculty and staff from Penn State World Campus. The strategies included embedding tutors in some of the more challenging online courses. A single embedded tutor might support as many as eight sections of the course.

Tutors meet virtually with students one-on-one or with groups by appointment as many as five to six days a week – including evening and weekend hours. The tutors also scheduled “drop-in sessions” when they would go over some of the more challenging concepts, answer questions, and provide more detail on upcoming course assignments. In addition to the virtual meetings, tutors posted helpful tips on study skills and supplemental web resources. The goal of the initiative was to increase retention by 2% per year over a five year period. However, the results showed a 75% reduction in withdrawal and late drops, and a 15% reduction in course failure rates.

Implementing an online supplemental instruction program sounds like a big undertaking but focusing on the most challenging online courses sounds like a great place to begin.


C. Wladis, K. Conway, A. C. Hachey (2015). Using course-level factors as predictors of online course outcomes: A multilevel analysis at a U.S. urban community college. Studies in Higher Education. Vol 42 (1). Taylor & Francis Online. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079.2015.1045478

Bridging the transactional distance between instructor and student

Orcutt and Dringus (2017) share the results of their study on what experienced online instructors do to establish teaching presence and create a climate of academic intellectual curiosity.


Source: Beyond Being There: Practices that Establish Presence, Engage Students and Influence Intellectual Curiosity in a Structured Online Learning Environment

Their findings demonstrate the effectiveness of developing teaching presence well before the course actually begins. By initiating “authentic relationships” through the use of welcome posts or emails students are able to connect with their instructors before the first day of class. This proactive approach establishes teaching and social presence and help learners to develop a sense of “being there” – closing the perceived transactional distance typical of the virtual learning environment.

Stitz & Zeager Open Algebra 3rd Edition

Can OER improve learning outcomes?

The June issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL) is dedicated to Open Educational Resources (OER). Several of the studies focus specifically on OER and student learning outcomes.

In, Exploring Open Educational Resources of College Algebra, Marcela Chiorescu, of Georgia College describes a case-study in which the instructor of a hybrid college algebra course switches from commercial software and textbook after the first two semesters, to an open text and supplemental low-cost software for a semester, and then back again to the commercial content.

For the semester using OER, Chiorescu estimates students collectively saved over $13,500  – spending approximately 75% less than students using the commercial text and software. Certainly one of the main advantages of adopting OER is lowering the costs to students. However, there may be other advantages more closely tied to student success.

Analyzing the grade distribution over the four semesters, the percentage of students earning a grade of C or better was significantly higher at 84.3% for the students enrolled in the semester using OER over the previous or subsequent semesters. The percentage of students earning an A in the course was also higher for those using OER. In addition, the OER sections reported significantly fewer withdrawals.

The decision to return to commercial content after one semester was related to technical issues with the low-cost software (quizzes locking up and slow download speeds). Chiorescu was also concerned that the low-cost software was not comparable in to the commercial version, due to a “lack of resources”. To compensate for the deficiency of course materials, she developed a LibGuide to accompany the course including supplemental videos and tutorials.

In another study: The Impact of Enrollment in an OER Course on Student Learning Outcomes, Kim Grewe and Preston Davis, of Northern Virginia Community College, compared learning outcomes for students enrolled in an online history course using OER with a similar number of non-OER sections over two semesters. The study took into account student cumulative GPA and, as expected, found a correlation between prior academic achievement and student course achievement. However, an even stronger correlation was found between student achievement and OER section enrollment.

Both studies build upon previous research looking at the efficacy of OER and student achievement (Grew & Davis) finding that students enrolled in courses using OER perform as well, if not better, than students enrolled in non-OER courses. In addition, OER supported courses are more affordable and students are more likely to enroll in a higher number of credit hours per semester – and thereby, achieve their academic goals in a more timely manner.

Another subtle, but important, takeaway was the use of LibGuides to supplement OER textbooks. One of the challenges of adopting OER is that the open textbook may not include all of the supplemental materials that oftentimes accompany the commercial texts. LibGuides offer the opportunity to engage the academic librarian in the course design process and potentially improve the overall quality of OER course offerings.


College Algebra, 3rd edition by Stitz C. and Zeager, J. (2013) Available at http://www.stitz-zeager.com/

CHIORESCU, Marcela. Exploring Open Educational Resources for College Algebra. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, [S.l.], v. 18, n. 4, jun. 2017. ISSN 1492-3831. Available at: <http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3003/4223>. Date accessed: 26 Jun. 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i4.3003.

GREWE, Kim; DAVIS, William Preston. The Impact of Enrollment in an OER Course on Student Learning Outcomes. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, [S.l.], v. 18, n. 4, jun. 2017. ISSN 1492-3831. Available at: <http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2986/4211>. Date accessed: 26 Jun. 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i4.2986.