University of Texas at Arlington

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College of Science Funds OER Development

by Michelle Reed September 12, 2018
Melissa Walsh

Melissa Walsh, Lecturer in UTA’s Department of Biology, was recently awarded an Improving Student Success in Science grant totaling $8,300 for her project titled, “Development and Implementation of a Sustainable Open Educational Resources Curriculum for Biology 1441: Cell and Molecular Biology.”


The funding initiative, sponsored by the College of Science Office of the Dean, supports faculty “in designing initiatives to transform the students’ academic experience and will lead to improved student success and reduced barriers to graduation.” Walsh’s project proposes to transition all sections of Biology 1441 from commercial resources, which currently cost each student between $150 and $300, to open educational resources (OER) by Fall 2019.


OER are free teaching and learning materials that are licensed to allow for revision and reuse. By eliminating financial barriers that impede student success, OER can positively impact exam scores, pass/fail rates, withdrawal rates, course grades, and national test scores. A 2016 meta-analysis of nine peer-reviewed research studies that measured student learning outcomes showed 95% of over 46,000 student participants performed as well or better when OER were used in place of traditional resources. The findings are further supported by a recent study from the University of Georgia, which revealed OER use has a disproportionately positive impact on Pell grant recipients, part-time students, and historically underserved populations.


Biology 1441 is a required foundational course for several degree plans at UTA. Over 1,200 undergraduate students enroll in the course each year. “This course in particular is one that the department and faculty who teach it have been very concerned about for awhile,” Walsh said, noting the course’s ~40% drop, failure, and withdrawal rate. “Over the past couple of years we’ve implemented a few new approaches [which have] improved performance modestly, but it’s really not the gains we would like to see.”


Walsh expects to see these gains by implementing an OER curriculum, and her project aims to demonstrate improvement in overall learning outcomes in the course, in performance and retention, in time to graduation, and in engagement. In addition to improving student success, the transition to OER will result in student savings of between $168,000 and $337,000 per year.


“We thought we really should see if making this course more accessible to students would improve performance,” she said. “That meant not just making it more affordable for students but also seeing if we could do a better job tailoring the content to the needs of the students.”


Unlike commercial textbooks and access codes, which cannot be altered due to copyright protection, OER are intended to be shared freely and can be legally revised, expanded, or otherwise adapted. Walsh plans to modify an existing open textbook published by OpenStax by removing material that isn’t addressed in the course and expanding content that students tend to struggle with. The resulting OER will be hosted in Pressbooks, a web-based publishing platform supported by UTA Libraries.


Additionally, she hopes to foster personalized learning and immediate feedback by developing interactive features using H5P technology, an open-source plugin, while avoiding the frustrations students frequently experience when attempting to access proprietary, digital content.


Regarding the Pearson platform currently in use, Walsh said, “It seems as though it’s cumbersome for the students to use and difficult for them to access. Our idea is that if materials are just available on Blackboard from day one, one click, simple, we won’t have so many issues at the beginning of the semester that really cause the students a lot of anxiety.”


Long term, Walsh and her colleagues hope to continue to explore the potential of OER in other large courses offered by the department.


“It’s the wave of the future,” she said.