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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — An interdisciplinary team from Middle Tennessee State University is launching a pilot project to promote widespread faculty use of free or low-cost open digital course content that could result in significant savings for students who sometimes struggle to afford necessary textbooks.

Open Educational Resources, or OER, “are materials for teaching or learning that are either in the public domain or have been released under a license that allows them to be freely used, changed, or shared with others,” according to Accessible online, these resources also typically provide downloading options for students who prefer a hard copy of the course materials.

MTSU secured a one-year $100,000 grant from the Tennessee Board of Regents to support the adaptation, adoption and creation of Open Educational Resources to increase student success and equity by assisting underrepresented student populations with staying on track toward earning their degrees.

Cheryl Torsney, vice provost for faculty affairs and OER project director, said the effort, titled “Embracing Equity through OER,” supports MTSU’s Quest 2025 plan to improve student retention and enhance the educational experience. An upcoming series of workshops through the university’s Learning, Teaching and Innovative Technologies Center will support the development and use of OER across campus.

The first workshop was held virtually in February featuring Ryan Korstange, assistant professor of university studies, and Erica Stone, assistant professor of English, both of whom use OER in their courses.

Faculty will be able to apply for individual grants as an incentive for developing OER for their courses, with the initial effort targeting what are called “gateway courses” — foundational general education courses that can require costly textbooks and thus pose a signficant economic challenge for a campus that serves a high concentration of first-generation college students.

“Because you can create, reuse and share OER, you can include things that make them more equitable,” Torsney said, noting that students can easily access the content on their smartphone, tablet or laptop. “They’re really a cornerstone these days for diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom. But obviously faculty retain control of their curriculum and how best to educate their students. We’re just trying to offer them options to keep their students enrolled and on track.”

Torsney and Korstange said students sometimes enter a university setting not realizing that in addition to the tuition and fees required to register, textbook costs are extra. Already cash-strapped students may not be able to afford the more costly textbooks, thus eroding the academic experience for a course, or causing some students to limit themselves to courses or programs that don’t require expensive textbooks.

“We have students, right now, who are spending on average $1,500 for textbooks a year at four-year schools in Tennesee,” Korstange said. “That’s a significant amount of money, and so we already know that students are struggling to figure out how to pay for school. … We have an opportunity to remove one barrier for students and their ability to learn, and that’s where I think this becomes really impactful.”

Korstange also noted that students would be able to access OER content even after they’ve completed a course, which can help them refresh their knowledge as they move to upper level courses without having to solely rely on their own notetaking when they first took the course.

Korstange and Stone serve with Torsney on the university’s OER Steering Committee that also includes Suzanne Mangrum, acquisitions librarian in the James E. Walker Library and OER textbook advocate; Kim Godwin, instructional designer and OER course design expert; and Bud Fischer, dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences and OER advocate.

Torsney said the OER Steering Committee submitted a grant proposal to TBR last year for this project. For Torsney and the other committee members, who also serve on the Tennessee Higher Education textbook affordability task force, being a grant recipient will help MTSU improve student outcomes.

“We are anticipating that as a result of using these OER, we will have better retention rates, which will lead to stronger graduation rates,” Torsney said. “Through this grant, we’re trying to provide our faculty with extra incentive and support to embrace this resource while providing practical reasons why it will help our students succeed in their academic and professional goals.”

The steering committee has assembled an OER Faculty Advisory Council to help lead the initiative and to recommend the funding of individual faculty grants through the office of University Provost Mark Byrnes.

For more information about the OER grant program at MTSU, contact Torsney at [email protected]

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