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UMUC’s No-Cost Content Strategy

By Larry Cooperman
Associate Dean for Open Education
University of California, Irvine

The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) has always been a unique institution. Not only is it one of the largest distance learning institutions in the United States, it is also one of the largest public university of any kind, and a member of the University System of Maryland. Its students come from primarily two sources, Maryland residents and the U.S. military. The latter, in particular, are spread throughout the world, giving UMUC a global character.

In 2013, UMUC embarked on an ambitious project to convert their courses and curriculum so that learning resources would have no cost to students. The main vehicle for this transformation: open educational resources. Last year, I listened to Karen Vignare, the Vice Provost for the Center for Innovations in Learning and Student Success, give a talk at OEC Global. Her phrase, “the first three hundred courses were the easy ones,” left such an impression that I called her up this year to see what had happened, including to the ones that weren’t “easy.”

To be honest, even as a proponent and practitioner of open education, I foresaw in UMUC’s project a number of potential issues. Would their institutional culture support this direction? Would OER be available at high-quality to serve an institution that offers 95 degrees and certificates? Would it be available in all of the breadth required? Would the logistics alone of the transition kill the project before it was completed?

I had the chance to talk to Karen at length recently about these issues. I asked Karen the most important question of all: why did UMUC take this decision in the first place. She gave two reasons. They wanted to better serve their students in the military, but to do this implied a phaseout of all printed textbooks, which were difficult to deliver in time to a globally distributed student body. But, the second reason, according to Karen, “there is a real cost that our students were paying…or choosing not to pay and thus going without the resources they needed to learn.”

Vice Provost of Learner and Faculty Experience, Dr. Kara Van Dam, added an additional reason. “Simply put, this is an access issue,” she said. “We have an obligation to our students, one that we take very seriously, to provide them with the resources they need to be successful in their academic programs and professional fields.”

Today’s public budgets for higher education come with a variety of constraints, from how funds can be used to ever tighter constraints on operating costs. Still trying to lower costs for students was important. UMUC President Javier Miyares made the unprecedented decision that educational resources would have no cost to all UMUC students regardless of where they were located.

The implementation of this policy was led by Provost Marie Cini and her team, who decided on a two-year timeline for the undergraduate program, with the graduate school coming on board in 2016. I asked Karen about the obstacles they faced, but in listening to her, it occurred to me that, in fact, UMUC could count on its uniqueness as an advantage. In the case of all enterprise projects, they follow standardized project management processes. The project team included these subject matter experts, the Learning Design and Solutions group, and others to create a project team.

The project team first went after the low-hanging fruit, what Karen called the previous year “the easy courses.” Under the leadership of Dr. Matthew Prineas, Vice Provost and Dean of the Undergraduate School and Dr. Van Dam, they identified sources of OER – the known repositories and reference sites. They brought in the library to identify no-cost-to-students e-books, whether or not they were shared under Creative Commons. Another obstacle was whether all the materials they identified were “the best” in terms of quality and learning efficacy.  Karen was honest. “While we are proud of the success of the project thus far, of course there are opportunities to do better. This is an iterative process and we continue to make improvements.”  As part of UMUC’s regular process of course development and review, UMUC will continue to evaluate the learning resources provided with each course and program, with options for improvement that include:

  • collaboration with others,
  • more UMUC development of learning content, and
  • the use of new and better materials coming into the open learning space.

She expanded on these ideas, noting that they are working with Open Learning Initiative (at both Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University) and Lumen Learning through Gates Courseware funding. In terms of UMUC resources for content development, their subject matter experts include the program chairs, several full-time faculty and the larger number of adjunct faculty. So they will have the option to integrate their own content creation more than they have in the first iteration.  Finally, as more and better materials come into the open space, current materials such as e-books—which can carry limitations on number of users and the ability to download—can be replaced by more dynamic resources.

The OER/No-Cost project is part of a broader transition, what UMUC calls “enhancing the learning model.” As part of this new model, learning resources will be available throughout any given program and not just on a per-course basis. While top-tier institutions attract students who have already been successful before arriving at the university, UMUC is working through multiple projects to address the needs of students who “first have to become successful learners.” To do this, they have been exploring tools, such as the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC)’s EdReady, Carnegie-Mellon’s OLI courses, and RealizeIt and CogBooks adaptive content software, which allow universities to create adaptive learning from their own content and OER content.

At the end of our conversation, Karen returned to the issue that has been raised frequently at Consortium meetings. About OER availability and quality, she asks, “This is not really a choice between a textbook and an OER: we know from national studies that students often do not purchase textbooks because of the cost. By moving to OERs, we are saying we want our students to have immediate and no-cost access to the resources they need to learn, and isn’t it better to let our students have immediate access at no-cost, rather than wait two or three years to develop the perfect OER materials? Isn’t it better to have the information improved over time by a lot of voices than have a small group prepare the best materials?  And isn’t that what the Internet is all about, enabling us to develop content quicker, faster, and ultimately, better?”

What’s clear is that UMUC is blazing the trail that others will sooner or later follow. Other universities are now adopting policies to encourage sharing under open licenses. But UMUC is the first large-scale university to utilize OER as a content strategy for the 21st century.