BMCC Leading the Way in CUNY OER Effort

May 23, 2017

Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) faculty have been working with the college’s library and Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship (CETLS) to convert expensive course textbook materials into Open Educational Resources (OER) and other freely accessible documents and media. The effort at BMCC is the largest and most consistent throughout the CUNY system, according to CUNY Open Education Librarian Ann Fiddler.

Currently, BMCC faculty are teaching approximately 175 sections of zero-textbook-cost courses, resulting in an estimated annual savings of $450,000 for more than 4,000 students. By Fall 2017, cumulative savings for BMCC students will be more than $1 million, according to figures compiled by the BMCC A. Philip Randolph Memorial Library.

BMCC first piloted an OER initiative in Spring 2015 through the BMCC Library and CETLS.

Faculty chosen for the program are able to demonstrate potential savings to BMCC students. Preference is given to Pathways and high-enrollment courses. Other factors taken into account are class size and transferability of the project to other courses.

BMCC leads CUNY effort and receives more funding

During the two-year period since the BMCC program began, the college has joined forces with the CUNY Library’s Open Educational Resources efforts and this has led to additional funding for the OER program at BMCC.

In Spring 2016, the CUNY Office of Library Services was chosen to participate in Achieving the Dream’s OER Degree grant program. Three CUNY colleges — BMCC, Hostos Community College and Bronx Community College — joined 38 colleges nationwide to convert at least one section of courses in a selected degree program, to OER. BMCC’s Criminal Justice degree program will be fully converted by Fall 2018.

CUNY also received $4 million in Spring 2017 from the State of New York Governor’s Office to support ongoing OER initiatives. The expected result will be large-scale course conversions throughout the university, including BMCC.

Also in Spring 2017, CUNY received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pilot Waymaker, personalized OER learning courseware. This project is part of a three-year research study that will evaluate the impact of OER courses on student success, persistence and retention.

CUNY students can now search for zero-textbook-cost courses through the CUNY First platform. By Spring 2017, there were 127 zero-textbook-cost courses listed with the majority of those being from BMCC.

“BMCC is by far, the most shining example,” says CUNY Open Education Librarian Ann Fiddler.

Operating under one umbrella

BMCC’s OER efforts are coordinated by the BMCC Library, CETLS and the Office of Academic Affairs.

“We have a constellation of OER programs that are working synergistically together,” said Jean Amaral, Assistant Professor and BMCC Outreach Librarian, who has spearheaded much of the effort.

She points out that BMCC students will greatly benefit as the program expands. Estimates show more than half of CUNY students come from households with annual incomes of less than $20,000. For many students, including those at BMCC, the average $1,200 each year for books and other supplies can be a barrier to academic success.

It was textbook affordability that sparked the original BMCC OER project, according to Amaral.

“When students can’t buy textbooks because they don’t have the money, it impacts their learning and ability to succeed,” said Amaral, who points to lack of competition in the textbook publishing industry as the culprit behind rising costs.

Over the past decade, the average cost of college textbooks has increased at a staggering rate —73 percent or more than four times the rate of inflation—according to data gathered by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs), an independent national student organization that works on issues such as consumer protection.

Student PIRGs says individual textbooks often cost more than $200, and nearly a third of the 5,000 students surveyed reported using a portion of their financial aid to pay for textbooks.

Faculty discover new ways to teach

OER gives faculty more control over course content, rather than teaching to a for-profit publisher’s textbook, according to BMCC Associate Dean of Faculty Jim Berg.

“It offers faculty the opportunity to match course material to their teaching goals,” said Berg.

In particular, OER have the capability to be “tailor made” specifically to a professor’s class, according to Daniel Torres, Assistant Professor, Chemistry, BMCC.

“Developing your own OER material as I did, gives you flexibility to add and remove bits and pieces, making the class easier for our students,” said Torres.

He says this is especially important for classes such as College Chemistry. For example, the OER Chemistry lab manual Torres developed was tailor made for the BMCC chemistry laboratories, using procedures that he and other BMCC professors say work well for BMCC students.

”OER has been revolutionary in creating different ways to teach my students,” said Marci Littlefield, Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences, Human Services and Criminal Justice Department.

She says OER material is more topical than the static content of a textbook.

“A lot of textbooks aren’t written appropriately for 100- or 200-level courses, and if the student’s first language is not English, they might struggle more with the material,” explained Littlefield. “Open sources challenged me to come up with a more level-appropriate way to present the same material, enabling students to understand it and move on to more challenging materials.”

Enhancing student performance and expanding faculty participation

CUNY Librarian Fiddler says OER materials have shown potential to improve student outcomes. In one math course using OER at CUNY, students scored 10 points higher on the final exam and were three times as likely to pass the course as were students using expensive materials from traditional publishing companies.

Fiddler says with all the new funding and faculty interest, the promise of OER is tremendous. 

At BMCC, Amaral says the OER program has seen more faculty applications than they can accept. But, she adds that the college’s Office of Academic Affairs believes in the program and has funded the effort at higher levels than most other CUNY schools.

“And now, thanks in great part to the state’s $4 million in funding, we will be able to accommodate more professors who want to participate in developing OER, and our program will expand more quickly,” she says.

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  • Over past decade, cost of textbooks has increased by 73 percent
  • Open Educational Resources Effort most consistent among CUNY schools
  • New funding allows program to grow

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