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

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: <>. Date accessed: 26 Jun. 2017. doi:

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: <>. Date accessed: 26 Jun. 2017. doi:





Advancing a Culture of Innovation

According to the 2017 Horizon Report , “Advancing Cultures of Change and Innovation” is one of the long-term trends to watch for in Higher Ed over the next five years.

“It will require visionary leadership to build higher education environments that are equipped to quickly change processes and strategies as startups do. If these organizational models are designed well, universities can experience more efficient implementation of new practices and pedagogies.” -2016 Horizon Report

Changing direction by Kapapuka Argazkiak on Flickr
Changing Direction by K. Argazkiak on Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA

The report references Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup (2011) as an example of an approach educators may employ to advance cultures of change on the college campus. The process is a business model for entrepreneurs to rapidly design and develop new ventures and involves a cycle of deploying “lean” (less than fully developed) prototypes, followed by collecting feedback from consumers, which in turn informs the next step in the development / design process. Fully developed products and services may have undergone several iterations, oftentimes resulting in a final product that may have changed significantly from the original prototype but has proven more attractive to the consumer.

This idea of rapidly cycling through numerous iterations is a method also used in DevOps – an approach to application development that brings together software developers (coders) and information technology (operations) upon the goals of improving quality and lessening time to market. An important characteristics of the DevOps approach is the focus on cultural change.

The word “culture” comes from the Latin – cultura, meaning to cultivate or prepare for growth. It seems to me this serves as an excellent metaphor for fostering change in the organization.

“When a college is undertaking a broader reform effort, a culture of inquiry can be used to define a framework for action, cultivate the engagement of a broad range of practitioners and identify discrete action steps at various levels of the institution.”

The Research and Planning Group (RPgroup) of California Community Colleges published a paper on Building a Culture of Inquiry: Using a cycle of exploring research and data to improve student success (2010). The project was funded by Completion By Design and describes the use of an Applied Inquiry Framework: a cycle of evidence based improvement consisting of five stages:

  1. Defining a focus of inquiry
  2. Gathering relevant and meaningful evidence
  3. Engaging a broad range of practitioners and exploring the evidence
  4. Translating collective insight into action
  5. Measuring the impact of action

This cycle of evidence can certainly be applied to advancing a campus culture of innovation. As an example, consider how the adoption of Open Educational Resources (OERs) may impact online student success. This would serve as stage one – defining our focus of inquiry. In stage two, we gather research about OERs and student success (e.g. Multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post secondary students (Fisher, L. Hilton, J., Wiley, D. 2015)).

The third stage where we bring together a broad range of practitioners to explore the evidence, is critical in advancing a culture of innovation. It is at this stage we share insights, explore and challenge our collective beliefs and assumptions in an effort to get to the fourth stage, where we translate this collective insight into action.

In our scenario we would invite faculty who use OERs as well as those who are reluctant to adopt open texts for whatever reasons. Instructional designers, librarians, and others would be invited to the table as well to engage in discourse and inquiry. Unfortunately, in higher education we often work in isolation. Even our classrooms, both virtual and physical, are essentially closed environments. However, they could potentially become environments of inquiry and experimentation, where not only students learn, but the faculty and the campus community learn as well.

Stage four is where we test our assumptions and collect feedback and data. If we already have instructors using OERs, what do students think of the course and materials? Is there any data on student outcomes that we can compare to similar courses where the materials are not used? Such feedback need not be especially burdensome. The “lean” approach is used to test our assumptions and evaluate the feedback. A simple survey or focus group may provide enough information for the next stage.

The fifth stage, measuring the impact of our action, is not actually the final stage. In a culture of inquiry and innovation, the feedback we collect is used to inform subsequent iterations of our innovation. We may find that students appreciate access to the free digital text but they may in fact, be printing out each chapter as the course progresses. How does this inform our next iteration? Should we consider offering a low-cost print alternative?

It seems to me the Applied Inquiry Framework is similar in many respects to Design-based Research (DBR) – a qualitative research approach used in authentic educational settings. The goal of DBR is to learn about learning in real-world settings which are often complex and unique environments. The virtual classroom is such a setting and to improve learning in the online environment is an iterative process. If our goal is to advance a culture of change and innovation, we will need to change our approach to that which fosters experimentation and to share with others what we are learning even as we are learning.

Approaching the finishing line… by Sumeet Mulani Via Flickr:

Can OER improve time-to-degree?

I recently overheard a student complain about being required to purchase a new textbook for their business course. The book cost about one hundred dollars new but they were hoping to save money by purchasing used. Unfortunately, used wasn’t an option as the text included an access code for ancillary publisher materials made available online. Since the access codes are non-transferable, only new texts are made available in the bookstore for students enrolling in the class. Another student said that they were hoping to get by without the text as it was “too expensive”.  Although I don’t know how frequently this happens, it’s not the first time I’ve heard of students trying to manage without the required textbooks for their college courses.

In a recent experimental study published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education, researchers found that students using open educational resources (OERs), including open textbooks, performed as well or better, in regards to completion rates and final grades, than students using commercial textbooks (Fisher et al 2015).

The study includes a sample size of 16,727 students from four universities and six community colleges with 4909 students in the “treatment condition” using OERs for their courses, and 11,818 in the control group using commercial textbooks.

The study compared student course completion, passing grade, and number of credits students took during a semester. Results indicated student completions were approximately the same for both the control and treatment groups with the exception of a couple of courses where attrition was somewhat higher for students in the control group. Grades were also mostly similar for the students in both groups with the majority of courses, although a few courses indicated students using the commercial text scored somewhat higher.

The most significant difference between the treatment and control groups was in the credit load – students in the treatment condition averaged 13.29 credit hours, while the control group averaged 11.14 hours. It may be that the savings students experienced using the OERs over the commercial text permitted more resources to be used for tuition.

It would be interesting to know some of the details in cases where students using OERs outperformed those using commercial texts. Perhaps these are the students who would otherwise have tried to get by without a “too expensive” textbook and later in the semester decided to drop or fail. Regardless of the reason, students using OERs stayed the course, and by enrolling in more courses may indeed cross the finish line that much earlier.


Fischer, L., Hilton III, J., Robinson, T.J.,Wiley, D.A. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post secondary students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Springer. Retrieved from

Adopt a Peer-reviewed Open Textbook

When considering the adoption of open educational resources (OERs) I have heard instructors express concern regarding the quality of the materials – stating a preference for commercially published materials because they are peer-reviewed. That excuse is losing merit on a number of fronts as educators, together with public and private organizations, work together in addressing these concerns.

Book Stack
CC-BY-NC- by Benton Library Media Center on Flickr

We recently learned that the openly licensed Precalculus textbook authored by Carl Stitz, Ph.D. (Professor of Mathematics, Lakeland Community College) and Jeff Zeager, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Mathematics, Lorain County Community College) has been approved by the American Institute of Mathematics.  Stitz and Zeager have released their textbook using a Creative Commons License.

The text is available free for students to download in pdf format, as well as at a very reasonable price for the print version from Lulu.

In a recent report by U.S. PIRG, entitled “Affordable Higher Education: Fixing the broken textbook market…

  • 65% of students surveyed reported they had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive.
  • [despite this fact] … 94% of students who had forgone a textbook were concerned doing so would hurt their grade in a course.
  • Nearly half of all students surveyed said that the cost of textbooks impacted how many / which classes they took each semester.

In an era where the focus in on completion and student success, we can no longer ignore the impact the high cost of textbooks has on our students and college affordability.

OpenStax College, an initiative of Rice University offers free open licensed peer-reviewed Textbooks in several general education subjects including: Physics, Sociology, Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, Statistics, Economics, Macro-economics, Micro-economics. More textbooks are in the queue including: Chemistry, Pre-calculus, History, and Psychology.

The OpenStax textbooks are licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 license