An Interview with Jeff Gallant from Affordable Learning Georgia (ALG)

The 5R of OER – Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute – come with an added responsibility of taking the time to put those permissions into use.

In the last decade, the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) has gained an undeniable momentum. At the same time, both faculty and students face barriers adopting OER. How can we foster a collaborative teaching climate in higher education to encourage faculty to work together to create, share, revise, and customize their course materials? How would this change the students’ learning experience, and the affordability of study material, i.e., textbooks?

Affordable Learning Georgia (ALG) is an initiative that was started by the University System of Georgia (USG) to promote student success by supporting the implementation of affordable alternatives to expensive commercial textbooks, particularly Open Educational Resources (OER) and open textbooks.

Jeff Gallant, program manager of Affordable Learning Georgia, is an expert on OER and textbook affordability.  In the interview, he gives an overview of the goals and history of ALG, differentiates between openness and affordability, and concludes with a vision for the future.

Please describe the history and goals of ALG.

Affordable Learning Georgia started in 2013 as a pilot team of USG librarians and instructional designers, working with GALILEO, Georgia’s Virtual Library, which had been providing affordable library materials to the state of Georgia for over 20 years. The team was charged with finding new ways to reduce the cost of textbooks to USG students and contribute to their retention, progression, and graduation. When ALG was first funded, as a USG initiative in 2014, those new ways became our plan of action and part of an overall effort to make higher education more effective, accessible, and affordable in Georgia, alongside Complete College Georgia and the 2013-2018 USG Strategic Plan.

What is the current reach of ALG? How many projects do you fund?

ALG focuses on supporting the work of faculty, instructional designers, and librarians to transform courses using no-cost or low-cost resources through Textbook Transformation Grants which fund the time it takes for each team member to get this transformative work done. Most grant projects adopt, adapt, and create Open Educational Resources primarily, and an overwhelming majority of transformed courses have zero textbook costs post-transformation. To date, 170 projects have been completed, and there are currently 60-funded projects in-progress. Every USG institution has received at least one grant.

Do you have data on the impact of the initiative for the students?

We aim to address all four aspects of the Open Education Group’s COUP Framework: Cost, Outcomes, Usage, and Perceptions. Our Statistics, Research, and Reports page has overall student savings data along with summaries by year for all completed grants projects. From the first round all the way to 2017’s three completed rounds, we are finding that students have overall positive perceptions of the new materials. Students either had better course outcomes in transformed courses (46% of teams saw positive improvements in grades and/or standardized test performance) or did about the same as they had with a more expensive textbook (51% of teams in 2017).  Student course-level retention rates (Drop/Fail/Withdraw delta rates) show a similar pattern of improvement. Considering that all ALG-funded programs have saved more than 200,000 students over $31 million to date, we are very encouraged by the results so far.

For efficacy data outside of Georgia, check out the Open Education Group’s Review Project.

In general, how do open textbooks change learning outcomes and why?

Faculty are instrumental in changing learning outcomes through the use of open textbooks. Cost savings to students are important, and all students having equal, day-one access to all materials for a course is just as important, but the real educational power of the 5R permissions of OER is in the ability to tailor course materials toward your particular learning outcomes and pedagogical strategies, and not the other way around.  USG faculty have been implementing innovative pedagogical strategies using the power of OER; when this happens, positive changes in learning outcomes tend to follow.

Are you aware of comparable initiatives in other states or internationally?

ALG partnered with the California State University system in order to start the initiative using the lessons learned from CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions and the pioneering OER discovery work of MERLOT. OER initiatives in Oregon, North Dakota, New York, and Florida have set the pace for programs alongside Georgia, with policy legislation in Texas, Colorado, Maryland, and Washington giving rise to new statewide OER programs.  Missouri has started an OER program through the University of Missouri, and NC LIVE, the equivalent of GALILEO in North Carolina, just announced an initiative as well. This year, the U.S. Congress included a $5 million budget appropriation for an OER pilot program for higher education institutions.

Canada is another international leader in OER, particularly in British Columbia, where BCcampus has led an open textbook initiative since 2012. Their work was particularly influential, alongside CSU, in the creation and planning of Affordable Learning Georgia. eCampus Ontario is beginning an open education initiative as well, focusing on both awareness and publishing.   

What are some exemplary projects that were funded by ALG? Can you point out some particularly impactful or innovative approaches?

In 2015, Dr. Kristin Barton and Dr. Barbara Tucker at Dalton State College set out to write a new open textbook, specifically made to address the learning outcomes within their department’s Public Speaking course and their goal was to implement the text departmentwide. Dr. Barton was already an accomplished author of everything from scholarly monographs to local trivia books, and he led the project as the primary author of the textbook. Dr. Tucker helped with authoring the textbook and both implemented the text in their courses. Sadly, in 2016, we received the news that Dr. Barton had passed away in the middle of the project. At that point, Dr. Tucker took on the role of project lead and did the work of two team members, finishing Exploring Public Speaking on her own. Thanks to their excellent work, the implementation affects almost 1,200 students at Dalton State each year, saving students a total of over $300,000 to date. Dr. Tucker has since made a 2nd edition of the book to do everything she did not have the time to do within the scope of the original project. The book is now in the curated Open Textbook Library with a 4.5-star peer review rating.

In another example, Dr. Molly Smith teaches a Microbiology course for allied health students at South Georgia State College. OpenStax, a high-quality open textbook publisher from Rice University, had released a Microbiology textbook, but instead of just adopting the textbook by itself, Dr. Smith and instructional designer Sara Selby created a remix of the textbook for Allied Health students. They also created an entirely new lab manual for the course. They shared all of the game-based learning activities they implemented in the classroom through an additional set of instructional materials.

What is the difference between open learning and affordable learning?

The concept of “open education” has existed in multiple forms over the years and taken on quite a few definitions, but open learning in the context of ALG is learning enabled by Open Educational Resources and the permissions they offer. Open licensing is critical to open learning, and the benefits go beyond cost.

Affordable Learning focuses on cost and it is a larger umbrella term containing OER but also including non-open resources. The non-open category includes licensed library resources (at no additional cost to students), freely accessible resources that are under full copyright (such as non-Creative Commons licensed media on the Web), and low-cost resources (such as online homework platforms that are supplementary to open textbooks). We currently define “low cost” resources as those that are $40 or less, with the understanding that this number may require adjustment in the future.

Why are traditional textbooks so expensive?

There are plenty of internal contributors to the rising cost of textbooks including inflation and the Consumer Price Index in the publishing industry. A substantial rise started around 2000, when every content-focused industry from music to film to books started a shift to digital resources. Rising IT costs, the fear of piracy, shifting physical media formats (remember CD-ROMs embedded in the back cover of a textbook?), and the rise of third-party and used markets all contributed to larger textbook price increases.

There was also the principal-agent problem, where students were required to purchase a textbook chosen on their behalf. Today, publishers are trying to make their textbooks more affordable as OER continues to disrupt the industry; however, publishers are running into issues with author royalties, such as the Cengage Unlimited lawsuit.

What do you think about bundle initiatives and subscription models by textbook publishers to reduce costs?

ALG is focused on making college as affordable as possible. A student could benefit greatly through a subscription to an unlimited publisher textbook model, such as the previously mentioned Cengage Unlimited, but only if that student did not have to subscribe to every publisher’s unlimited textbook model. Models like this are mistakenly referred to as “The Netflix of Textbooks,” when they are really one-channel resources, similar to CBS All-Access or HBO Now. Affordability, in this case, would be dependent on everyone adopting materials from one publisher.

It is important to separate for-profit, closed-access material affordability from the Open Education movement. These approaches can work in tandem toward affordability, but affordable digital textbook rental programs from a publisher do not replace the greater pedagogical power of the permissions given to instructors with OER, or the rights given to students to retain these materials and reuse them in new contexts.

In a perfect world, publisher’s IT support services and designers would contribute to enhancing student learning and working alongside OER creators. We welcome publishers’ efforts to make their resources more affordable to students, while still making a profit, but the reality is some of their new models may actually negatively impact an instructor’s freedom to choose the resources for a course.

What are some of the barriers to adopt open textbooks? 

Finding time and resources, while maintaining quality and ensuring accessibility are all critical to the success of open textbooks.

Time is the largest barrier to OER adoption. The power of the 5R permissions of Open comes with an added responsibility of taking the time to put those permissions into use. Faculty will, at the very least, need to create new lecture materials, tests, quizzes, maybe even new final projects. If they want to innovate, like Dr. Tucker, Dr. Smith, or Ms. Selby, even more time will be needed to remix, revise, or write new materials, implement inventive pedagogical strategies, and do the administrative work to take the project departmentwide. Many instructors are already over-booked within their course loads, committees, service and research. To support faculty in OER adoption, first and foremost, is to support their time, whether that is through funding their time directly or providing support through other professional staff such as instructional designers and librarians.

The Babson Survey Research Group releases OER perceptions reports regularly, and at the top of their barriers to OER adoption are always discovery (difficulty to find what is needed and/or a lack of resources for the subject) and quality. Discovery is a main issue in OER because the Open movement is not centralized within only a few companies, the way the publishing industry is. Open textbook publishers do not have the money to hire sales representatives and advocates for OER make zero commission for the adoption of free textbooks. Therefore, discovery is not only more difficult due to decentralization, but without support, it is on the faculty to do all of this decentralized searching. Support can come from having an OER librarian on campus, or a champion within a department to raise awareness of OER and help with the discovery process.

Quality is a tougher issue to address. From what we have seen, perceptions of quality largely depend on what a faculty member needs for their particular course and this differs from instructor to instructor, based on both theoretical perspectives and the needs of their students, not to mention the variation that occurs from institution to institution. Some subject areas value a particular author over others, who may value peer review or authors from particular institutions. In order to ensure quality in OER adoption, support is needed for faculty to be able to take the time to make their resources high quality according to their own individual needs.

Accessibility is also paramount when creating and distributing new materials. Instructional designers with extensive knowledge of universal design can help faculty create materials built from the ground up with accessibility in mind.

Do you see unique opportunities in openness from an instructional point of view?

OER enables new forms of instruction which empower the faculty member through the 5R permissions and empower students to have equal access to required resources, while keeping those resources and using them in new ways after the course is over, and even contributing to the improvement or creation of OER.

For examples outside of Georgia in how OER-enabled pedagogy can work, check out A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students from the Rebus Foundation, the Open Pedagogy Notebook, and the Open Faculty Patchbook.

What is your vision for the future of ALG?

We are now approaching the second year of a three-year Strategic Plan for ALG, with a major milestone being the completion of a systemwide survey on OER, with over 1,700 faculty and professional staff respondents. This survey, through some extensive quantitative and qualitative analysis taking place right now, will give us a better idea of what how ALG can help USG faculty make higher education more affordable in the future.

A course catalog designator is coming in Fall 2018 to allow students to see courses that use no-cost (including OER) or low-cost resources as required materials. The Open community at large continues to work on new platforms to make open textbook and OER creation easier and more connected, while others work on new discovery systems. In the future, I see our community of practice within ALG growing more connected and more visible, pursuing not only more OER adoptions, adaptations, and creations, but also entire degree programs with zero textbook costs, similar to the Z-Degree and Zed Cred programs pioneering this effort elsewhere.

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