Photo by alles banane CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo by alles banane CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A quick Google-search on the benefits of OER for students will easily deliver a number of hits calling upon, for instance, their power to encourage more independent and flexible learning opportunities, and to facilitate exploration of materials ahead of enrolment, allowing learners to choose more wisely and also be better prepared. The JISC OER infoKit adds, amongst other, freedom of access and the international dimension that comes from being able to apply knowledge beyond the confines of one course. One would think that OER use comes as a ray of sunshine, but to what extent do OER increase student satisfaction?

As it is often the case, our research to date derives mostly from asking teachers about their beliefs on the impact of OER use on the students’ learning experience rather than asking learners themselves.  Even then, we have found that educators and learners don’t agree with each other: while the former are generally convinced of the goodness of OER, the latter are less solidly inclined to declare themselves entirely satisfied with open practices.

On the impact of OER on student satisfaction, data extracted from surveys conducted with two of our collaborations (OpenLearn and the Flipped Learning Network) make apparent this discrepancy. For example, 63% of educators using OpenLearn (n=31) agreed that open educational resources improve student satisfaction, an opinion shared by 85% of K12 teachers engaged in flipped learning (n=75). However, just 47% (n=54) of formal learners indicated that their satisfaction with the learning experience was boosted by their use of OpenLearn resources.

When we talk about OER in relation to student performance, the story repeats itself. If we consider improved performance in terms of an increase in grades, only 14% (n=16) of surveyed students indicated that they had achieved higher marks as a result of using OpenLearn. Educators, on the other hand, took a more optimistic stance: 44% (n=21) agreed that using OpenLearn leads to greater student grades, and 63% of K12 teachers (n=55) agreed that using free online resources in the flipped classroom contributes to higher test scores.

Our surveys also included questions to canvass non-grade related aspects of performance such as students’ participation in class discussions, their involvement with lesson content, etc. The results paint a similar picture of dissent, as the chart below shows.


Perhaps stronger evidence on the impact of OER use on student performance and satisfaction comes from those research studies that have been able to implement comparison points. According to the Bridge to Success Final Report, pass rates (A-C grades) from students taking the Succeed with Math (SWiM) course increased from 50.6% to 68.6%. To validate this data, the pass rates of a similar sample of students taking English or Reading (ENG/RDG) coded courses were also collected. In this case there was little difference in test scores between concurrent (69.5%) and following (70.3%) cohorts, suggesting that it is reasonable to consider students’ involvement in the SWiM course as contributing to their improved performance in the subject.

The Math Department at Byron High School in Minnesota tells another happy story. Pushed by financial constraints, math teachers committed to creating a textbook-free curriculum by 2010, as they adopted the flipped classroom model: a Moodle course served as spine for each classroom, where teachers embedded YouTube videos for students to watch as homework. Students not only welcomed the lighter weight in their backpacks, but also gave the approach the thumbs-up when it came to exam time: Math mastery danced from 29.9 % in 2006 to 73.8 % in 2011, and ACT scores from an average of 21.2 (on a scale of 36) in 2006 to 24.5 in 2011 (Fulton, 2012). One caveat needs to be raised, in my opinion: that teachers’ involvement in using flipped learning techniques is as likely to account for maximising learning as their use of OER. To throw a spanner in the works, further evidence on the substitution of traditional textbooks by open textbooks in the K12 science classroom does not corroborate an increase in students’ test scores (Wiley et al., 2013).

Although more research is needed to strengthen these findings, on the subject of open textbooks the achievements of OpenStax give resounding support to the link between OER and satisfaction: at the end of June 2013, OpenStax textbooks had been downloaded over 120K times, just over 17 million unique visitors had accessed the materials and 200 institutions decided to “formally adopt” OpenStax materials: over $3 million savings for students (OpenStax July Newsletter).

In the words of Horace, beatus ille qui exercet OER.