Strategic plan funds extend impact of open educational resources

The use of open educational resources (OER) has expanded significantly across the university in the last five years, but the need remains for program- and course-specific options. University Library dean Hilary Seo and staff used a $300,000 initial strategic plan award to add to Iowa State's free and affordable instruction materials.

Need OER help?

Instructors interested in using or learning more about open educational resources can contact Abbey Elder.

OER range from textbooks to lesson plans and videos. They are openly licensed, allowing instructors to adapt and edit them to their course needs. At Iowa State, the use of OER has saved students $2.5 million since 2018. 

Last spring, the library team issued two calls for strategic plan fund proposals, one to fund projects developing infrastructure to support the use of affordable course materials ($75,000), a second for course content ($225,000). The team awarded funds to four infrastructure projects and four content projects. Open access and scholarly communication librarian Abbey Elder said the content projects focus on undergraduate high-enrollment courses and courses in subject areas where OER options are minimal.

"We have seen a huge increase in awareness, interest and use of OER on and off campus," Elder said. "More faculty are coming to me to talk about OER in disciplines I wasn't necessarily thinking about. Apparel design and architecture are fields where the need is there for more niche and high-level OER because that is where there aren't as many commercial books available to meet the demand."

Elder said more than 40 instructors currently use OER in their courses to eliminate or reduce the cost of materials for students. OER remain essential in the immediate access program to keep course materials costs low for all students and eliminate barriers of access to course materials. 

Here is an update on a couple of the grant projects underway:

Content projects

A group from the Graduate College, with partners in the library and the Office of Research Ethics, is building a modular research handbook covering key areas of the research process for students. The handbook designers are constructing chapters on the research process and, in some cases, modifying other OER material to their needs. Elder said the proposal may seem basic -- it is one handbook -- but its impact could be significant at ISU and other institutions across the nation.

"It can be adapted for high-level undergraduate courses and graduate courses," she said. "Because it's modular, it's beneficial to so many disciplines, and that makes it very useful."

Elder said the project fills a gap between Library 160, a freshman introduction to college-level research, and more intensive research in upper level and graduate courses.

"It helps them build on the baseline of how to do research, to how to do research in a particular field without having to rely on someone else to show them," she said.

Faculty will be able to use the handbook as a guide in courses or with student research assistants, eliminating the need to cover research basics so faculty can delve into more in-depth topics.

Another project focuses on developing OER across courses in the agronomy core sequence, which would nearly eliminate materials costs for the degree program. Elder said it started as an idea for a few agronomy courses and spread as more instructors learned about its development.

"It's an incredibly high-impact project that may inform others across campus," she said.

Infrastructure projects

A team with members from the library, information technology services, financial aid, admissions, institutional research and the ISU Book Store currently is testing a data dashboard of course material costs across Iowa State. The intent is to share information with students that helps them anticipate the costs of their degree. The dashboard will provide the percentage of zero- and low-cost textbooks across the university and allow students to get a rough estimate of course materials costs within a specific course or program. Information is from the past year -- not the current semester.

"We have conversations about how we can be more transparent about the costs of textbooks at Iowa State," Elder said. "The university does a great job helping students search for and find their current textbook information, but highlighting the courses that have low- or no-cost textbooks is a good way to show students and parents how Iowa State faculty are working hard to keep costs down."

The bigger picture for affordable course materials

OER is just one part of the library's effort to keep course materials affordable. 

"OER is one of the areas in our three-pronged approach to keep materials costs low for students, along with course reserves and support of expert librarians," said University Library communications manager Melea Licht. "Librarians help instructors identify free and low-cost resources and help connect students with those resources via library and course guides."

The library secures copyright permissions and pays costs for course reserves -- print and electronic -- when possible to provide free materials to students.

Since 2018, the library and other sponsors support the Miller Open Education Mini-Grant program to assist faculty who develop innovative classroom resources. The program awarded $31,000 in mini-grants to projects in 2023; April 15 is the deadline to submit 2024 proposals.