Creating Affordable Content Programs

Chapter 10 – Encouraging a Yes: Effective Institutional OER Initiatives

Nicole Finkbeiner, Daniel Williamson, Richard Baraniuk

by Nicole Finkbeiner, Daniel Williamson, Richard Baraniuk (all from OpenStax) (bios)

Encouraging a Yes: Effective Institutional OER Initiatives

College and university administrators are increasingly interested in addressing issues of affordability and degree completion on their campuses. They have found that the use of open educational resources (OERs) can support student success initiatives and lower costs, but are often unsure how to encourage OER adoption while protecting their faculty’s right to choose the resources they deem best for their classes and students.

With its innovative, cohort-based Institutional Partnership Program, OpenStax at Rice University has developed a strategic framework with measurable metrics. This program increases the use of OERs on campuses while addressing concerns about academic freedom by focusing on encouraging and incentivizing faculty to consider OERs, and it allows for customization bgy each institution. Using data collected from a variety of colleges and universities, the OpenStax Institutional Partner Program has identified specific common tactics that consistently lead to success. Along with the framework, members of the 10–12 participating colleges and universities provide support to one another and hold one another accountable, ensuring success at each institution.

The eleven schools that participated in the OpenStax Institutional Partner Program as part of the 2016–2017 cohort increased their use of OERs by an average of 150 percent, resulting in an additional 50,000 students gaining access to OERs, and increasing total textbook savings at these institutions to $8.2 million. This chapter discusses the key aspects of the framework of this program that have lead to its success.

Metrics-Based Approach

The first aspect of creating an effective OER initiative is to focus instead on the results we want to see.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, authors Stephen Covey emphasizes that “An effective goal focuses on results, not activity.” Yet when it comes to initiatives at educational institutions, we tend to measure our actions, not our outcomes. When asked about the progress of an OER initiative, we talk about our committee meetings, the emails we sent, and the marketing we’ve done. The first aspect of creating an effective OER initiative is to focus instead on the results we want to see.

Assess Where You’re At

The first step in moving to a metrics-based approach is to assess your initiative’s current success. To this end, you should know:

  • How many students are currently impacted by OERs at your institution?
  • How many faculty are currently using OERs at your institution?

While assessing where you are at is an important first step, it’s easy to get stuck in creating surveys, getting them approved, and marketing them, which can greatly slow your progress. Instead, focus on the information you can gather in two weeks (or another very brief period of time) and then move forward. You can continue to update your metrics as you go.

A simple spreadsheet, with the following columns, can work well to track OER adoptions:

  • Faculty name
  • OER title/modules they are using
  • Publisher and/or location of OERs
  • Number of students per year they are impacting with their use of OERs
  • When they began using the OERs
  • Course information

From this information, you can calculate current student savings. The most efficient way to do this is to use an average savings for all OERs that takes into account discounts for students who could buy their content used, rent their content, etc. While OER groups vary on this average, most estimate the average savings as between $98.57 and $100 per student per year.

Setting Goals

You can now begin to build the full picture of where your institution is and the goals you want to set for the future. For this, you need your duplicated headcount, also known as your seat count, which counts every student in every course they take. (If student A is taking four courses, for example, he or she is counted four times.)

If your school has a duplicated headcount of 30,000 and 1,000 students are currently impacted by OERs, you can calculate the current student impact and set goals:

Current Savings

OpenStax estimates that the average student will save $98.57 per year. This number factors in a student’s ability to buy new or used books, rent books, etc.

  • 1,000 * $98.57 = $98,570 current student savings
  • (1,000/30,000)*100 = 3.33% of the student population is currently impacted by OERs


Based on our experiences with Institutional Partner schools, we estimate that, with a strategic OER effort, an institution can achieve a level of 25% of their duplicated student headcount using OERs within a 2–5 year period.

  • 30,000 * 0.25 = 7,500 anticipated number of students to be impacted by OERs in 2–5 years
  • 7,500 * $98.57 = $739,275 yearly student savings if goal is met

Getting Stuck

While assessments and goal setting are important, many colleges and universities get stuck at this step; they draft a survey, run it through the appropriate channels, and wait for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval; by then, a year has passed. Instead, do the best you can within a period of two weeks or less, and then move on; if you learn of OER use you didn’t originally include, you can always go back and update your numbers.

Build Internal Support

In most cases, the successful OER initiatives are those seen as belonging to everyone, rather than an individual department. Often, when we visit a campus with a struggling OER initiative, we’ll hear “I support the library’s OER initiative” or “I support the Office of Teaching and Learning’s OER initiative.” It is particularly troublesome when these comments come from faculty. These speakers do not view themselves as responsible for the success of the initiative. It is important to move to a place where, when asked, everyone sees the initiative as being part of the college or university as a whole.

In most cases, the successful OER initiatives are those seen as belonging to everyone, rather than an individual department.

Senior Leadership Support

Crucial to ensuring that the initiative is seen as an institution-wide effort is to have at least one senior leader regularly emphasize and express support for the initiative. While the initiative shouldn’t be top-down, it does need top-level support.

Senior leaders can express their support in a variety of ways: promoting the initiative at faculty and staff events, providing funding for grants and events, sending an email of support, giving presentations on the initiative at board meetings, giving interviews for campus and external articles, and so on. It’s key that they express support while also promoting academic freedom, and that they do so regularly.

Include Everyone

Another key to ensuring that the initiative belongs to everyone is to have everyone involved. While membership can vary by institution, these key groups should be involved in your OER initiative:

  • Faculty
  • Administrators
  • Librarians
  • Instructional support
  • Senior administration
  • Students
  • Disability Services
  • Bookstore

Identify an Effective Leader

While including everyone is a core element of success, you also need to ensure that your initiative has a leader. We define a leader as someone who will be held accountable for the success of the initiative, meaning that it is written into their job description and that their success with the initiative is a factor in their job performance review. Often, when visiting a college or university with a struggling initiative, we’ll ask “Who is your leader?” and see many fingers pointing at one another. With no one taking personal responsibility or being assigned formal responsibility, it’s very difficult to move forward.

A leader is often chosen by availability—who can take on the work, or which office has the bandwidth to do so. Instead, we recommend that you carefully consider who the most effective leader will be.

An effective leader is someone who:

  • Is respected by faculty
  • Is viewed as a peer by faculty
  • Can dedicate 10+ hours per week to the initiative

The most effective leader of an OER initiative is often a faculty member who is granted leave time to work on the initiative. At some institutions, this arrangement is structured as a faculty fellowship, which has the additional benefit of providing a formal reason for the faculty member to drive the initiative. It also is a way to demonstrate senior leadership support, as these fellowships are usually sponsored and/or funded by a senior administrator.

Another option that has been very successful is to have co-leaders: usually a faculty member along with a staff member from another department. Common combinations are a faculty member with a staff member from Teaching and Learning, and a faculty member with a librarian.

Shifting to an Active Role

One of the biggest factors determining success of an OER initiative is whether promoters at an institution are active or passive in their advocacy. The most successful institutions are those at which OER promoters are actively—and tirelessly—addressing various groups and audiences to promote OERs. The schools that struggle, in contrast, are passive, waiting for people to show an interest in OERs and then only providing information. As one of the authors was told, “My role has never been to go out and promote, my role has always been to wait for someone to come to me for help.” As long as the people in charge of your OER initiative see their role as “wait for someone to come to me for help,’’ your institution will struggle to gain ground.

One of the biggest factors determining success of an OER initiative is whether promoters at an institution are active or passive in their advocacy. The most successful institutions are those at which OER promoters are actively—and tirelessly—addressing various groups and audiences to promote OERs.

Direct vs. Indirect Tactics

Central to taking an active role in promoting OERs on your campus is ensuring that you implement direct rather than indirect tactics. A direct tactic should lead to a faculty member indicating “yes,” “no,” or “I’m interested, tell me more,” and allow you to gather leads, encourage adoptions, or collect student impact data. An indirect tactic is the passive approach of “if we build it, they might find it,” and is defined as an action that won’t directly lead to a faculty member indicating “yes,” “no,” or “I’m interested, tell me more.”

The easiest way to tell if an approach is direct or indirect is to ask yourself “with this tactic, how will I get a list of faculty who are interested and a list of faculty who will adopt OERs?”

Top actions that lead to OER adoptions With this tactic, how will I get a list of faculty who are interested and a list of faculty who will adopt OERs? What makes this a direct tactic?
One-on-one meetings with faculty Any faculty member who agrees to the meeting is expressing interest (and counts as a lead). Any faculty member who agrees to adopt an OER is an adoption.
Presentations about OERs during department meetings Option 1) If it’s a small department, follow up with each faculty member and ask for a one-on-one meeting. Option 2) If it’s a large department, distribute a sign-up sheet on which faculty can express interest. Any faculty member who signs the sheet is a lead. Have a one-on-one meeting with each of these faculty members.
Adoption grants: providing faculty with course release time and/or a financial incentive to adopt an OER. Any faculty member who expresses interest or applies for the grant is a lead. Any faculty receiving the grant is an adoption.
Table 1. Top actions that lead to OER adoptions


Go to Them

Faculty are very busy, balancing teaching, office hours, research, and additional duties. Due to their schedules and workload, having them come to you can be a challenge. We recommend that you plan most if not all of your direct tactics around you going to them. Instead of inviting them to a presentation in your library or Teaching and Learning center, give the presentation during their department meeting. Instead of asking them to stop by your office, find a good time to meet with them in theirs.

Making “The Ask”

Another aspect of switching to an active role in promoting OERs is to move from providing information to making an ask: asking a faculty member if he or she is willing to switch to an OER.

A key concern in making an ask is to protect academic freedom. Depending on your relationship with the faculty member, the ask could be as direct as “Would you be willing to pilot this in your course?” or “Would you be willing to adopt this for your course?” It could also be something more subtle, such as “Is this something that may work for your course?” or “What do you think of this material for your courses?”

Building Momentum

The next phase of creating an effective OER initiative is to build momentum by identifying eight direct tactics you will implement throughout the year, and creating a timeline for each.

Focus on Scale

One of the most effective ways to build momentum in an OER initiative is to focus on the number of students who could potentially be impacted. We recommend identifying the top 25–50 courses with the highest enrollment, and focusing your advocacy efforts on those courses. It takes the same or very close to the same effort to speak to a faculty member who teaches 1,000 students per year than it does a faculty member with 30 students per year, so to increase the number of students impacted by OERs as much as possible, it makes sense to focus your efforts on the faculty members who reach the most students.

Another benefit of focusing on high-enrollment courses is that, as the number of students benefiting from the initiative rises, you are likely to see student advocacy increase as well.

Another benefit of focusing on high-enrollment courses is that, as the number of students benefiting from the initiative rises, you are likely to see student advocacy increase as well.

Adopt, Adapt, Create

As with the focus on scale, your return on investment (ROI) will be the highest if you start with easy wins that have immediate impact on students. From our experience, easy wins come when an OER is already developed, as it takes much less time for a faculty member to transition to a fully-developed OER than to adapt or create one themselves.

We recommend that institutions focus their efforts on faculty who could adopt already-existing OERs, as this requires the least amount of money from the institution and the least amount of faculty time. After you’ve exhausted all courses for which this could work, we recommend focusing on those that could adapt an already-existing OER; this still takes significantly less money and time than creating one. Finally, after a few years and if all adopt/adapt options are exhausted, move on to OER creation.

Eight Direct Tactics

In the OpenStax Institutional Partner Program, institutions complete no fewer than eight direct tactics through the academic year (from the beginning of the fall semester until the bookstore deadline for the next fall semester). In our experience, this number of tactics is needed because 1) different faculty will respond to different approaches; 2) it ensures that the conversation around OERs is ongoing, which signals to faculty and staff that it is a priority; and 3) some tactics aren’t going to work, and it’s difficult to predict which as this varies across institutions. Completing so many in one year minimizes the risk that one unsuccessful approach will derail the entire effort.

Rather than a standard set of direct tactics, OpenStax provides a list of many tactics and works with each institution to identify the eight most likely to yield positive results and ensure enough variety so that, if some don’t work, the entire initiative is still successful. Direct tactics include promotions by senior leaders, workshops, and training sessions.

Plan Your Year

Once you’ve identified your eight direct tactics, the next step is to plan your year to build momentum, allowing time for marketing and cross-departmental collaboration, and with key dates in mind.

The main key dates you’ll need to plan around are:

  • All faculty events, such as convocation
  • Start and end dates of each semester
  • Holiday breaks
  • Bookstore deadlines

Knowing those dates will help you with a general outline of your year:

  • Fall faculty convocation: Begin your direct tactics
  • Throughout the fall semester: Continue with your direct tactics until the Thanksgiving break
  • End-of-year holidays: Cease direct tactics
  • Spring faculty convocation: Start your direct tactics again
  • Throughout the spring semester: Continue with your direct tactics
  • Fall bookstore deadline: Complete all direct tactics prior to this date

With this structure your direct tactics happen throughout each semester, in a pattern of constant events and communications. We hear from faculty members that this momentum gives the impression that the OER initiative is really important because they “never stop hearing about it.”

Planning out the year helps you think through the steps needed to complete each direct tactic and make it as effective as possible; it also helps in coordinating with other departments. Common planning steps include:

  • Asking to be added to the faculty convocation agenda prior to the agenda being finalized
  • Giving marketing enough time to develop materials so that you can begin marketing OER events two weeks out
  • Marketing OER events at least two weeks in advance
  • Working through the steps to get a grant program approved
  • Providing senior administrators with ample time to review any communications prior to them being sent out on your behalf

Measure and Adjust

Another critical aspect of completing eight direct tactics within the school year is to track each with individual metrics so you can quickly identify those that are working and those that aren’t.

Another critical aspect of completing eight direct tactics within the school year is to track each with individual metrics so you can quickly identify those that are working and those that aren’t.

At the beginning of the OpenStax Institutional Partner Program, after selecting the eight direct tactics they will complete, each school sets goals for the following three metrics:

  • Faculty “leads:” the number of faculty who respond to the direct tactic and somehow indicate they are interested. This could mean putting their name down on a sign-up sheet, registering to attend an event, or responding to your request for a meeting and agreeing to meet with you. If you don’t have an exact count, you can estimate the number of leads by using previous initiative data. How many faculty, for example, usually register for your workshops? When you send out an email asking faculty to do something, how many usually respond?
  • Faculty adoptions: from use of the direct tactic, the number of faculty who agree to utilize an OER in their course(s). This number is usually about half the number of the faculty leads above.
  • Students impacted: derived from the number of the students in the courses for which faculty adopt an OER. An easy way to estimate this number is to estimate the average number of students taught per faculty member and multiply it by the target number of adoptions.

For many schools these numbers are educated guesses, and that’s ok. The goal is not to get these numbers exactly right, but to have some sort of metric providing a baseline to see how each direct tactic works.

The Importance of Tracking Each Direct Tactic Individually

At least once per month, each OpenStax Institutional Partner school provides comparative data for the actual number of leads, adoptions, and students for each direct tactic.


Tactics Goal leads from tactic Actual leads from tactic Goal adoptions from tactic Actual adoptions from tactic Goal students impacted from tactic Actual students impacted from tactic
Direct tactic 1 25 20 12 10 1,250 823
Direct tactic 2 5 0 3 0 250 0
Direct tactic 3 10 15 5 10 500 600
Direct tactic 4 7 6 3 2 350 189
Direct tactic 5 30 2 15 0 1,500 0
Direct tactic 6 10 7 5 5 500 473
Direct tactic 7 4 2 2 1 200 30
Direct tactic 8 50 60 25 30 2,500 3,000
Table 2. Tracking tactics


Note that in this example, direct tactics 2 and 5 didn’t lead to any adoptions or students impacted. While many institutions panic at this point, thinking they’ve done something wrong, it’s very common for one or two direct tactics to be unsuccessful.

We measure program completion by whether an institution completes each of the eight direct tactics and records the results and impact numbers. Our goal is to help institutions learn what works and doesn’t in their unique campus climates, and then adjust. When we see that a direct tactic isn’t working, we advise the institution to stop using it and put the recouped effort into the direct tactics that are working, maximizing their ROI.

Cross-Pollination of Direct Tactics

It’s also very important to count each faculty member and their students only once, even if they respond to multiple direct tactics; not doing this leads to inaccurate reporting of your successes. If a faculty member responds to multiple direct tactics, count them and their students under the direct tactic you think had the most impact on that particular faculty member.

Systems of Accountability and Support

Each successful OER initiative must, finally, have systems of accountability and support to keep people on track and focused. All OpenStax Institutional Partner schools in each year’s cohort meet monthly via phone to provide this support to one another.

At these meetings, each school shares updated numbers on their OER strategic plan, then reports (based on the numbers) one thing that’s going well, one thing that isn’t, and one thing on which they’d like feedback from the group. This format keeps the institutions on track, since having to report results to the other institutions as well as to an OpenStax representative is a powerful external motivator for completing tasks. It also provides a structured, confidential place for each school to seek advice and support from other institutions.

It’s All or Nothing

The process and tasks we’ve outlined can seem overwhelming and, admittedly, it’s a lot of work and not for the faint of heart. Many institutions understandably try to take shortcuts—skipping the step of getting initial buy-in, not recruiting a faculty leader, completing only a few direct tactics in a year, not tracking the success of each direct tactic. And the results show the difference. When an institution approaches us wanting to only complete a piece of what we recommend, we strongly encourage them to wait until they can do all of it. That’s the only way to see dramatic results.

Author Bios:

Nicole Finkbeiner
Director, Institutional Relations, OpenStax at Rice University
Nicole Finkbeiner founded the Institutional Partnership Program at OpenStax at Rice University, which saves students millions of dollars in textbook costs each year. A former community college administrator, Finkbeiner utilizes her experiences to guide college and universities on the most effective strategies and tactics to increase the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) while protecting academic freedom. A native of Michigan, Finkbeiner holds degrees in business, marketing and advertising and focuses on internal and external communications and college relations in higher education.

Daniel Williamson
Managing Director, OpenStax at Rice University
Daniel Williamson manages the day to day operations of OpenStax using his extensive experience in academic e-publishing to guide content development, technology integration, and overall project coordination. A Rice University graduate and passionate advocate of affordable education, he has dedicated the past ten years of his life to developing and leading education startups from conception to culmination. During that time, he has staked a claim in many areas of specialization, specifically: open education, content development, ed-tech, consumer intelligence, management, and quality assurance.

Richard Baraniuk
Founder and Director of OpenStax
Victor E. Cameron Professor of Engineering at Rice University
Richard Baraniuk is founder and director of OpenStax and a passionate advocate for open education. He has made seminal contributions to the open education movement by spearheading the widespread creation and usage of open educational resources (OER) via Connexions (1999) and OpenStax (2012). Through his belief that all students should be limited only by their aspirations, Richard has led OpenStax to become one of the largest providers of high-quality OER. He has an active research program in machine learning and signal processing, and his group’s algorithms are powering the learning analytics and personalization engines in OpenStax’s personalized digital courseware.


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Chapter 10 - Encouraging a Yes: Effective Institutional OER Initiatives Copyright © 2018 by Nicole Finkbeiner, Daniel Williamson, Richard Baraniuk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.