Embrace of digital course materials grew during pandemic

Many experts have been predicting for years that digital course materials would take off, replacing print textbooks and curricular supplements as the preferred choice of instructors, students and institutions alike. But despite growing concerns about the high price of print textbooks, major investments by states and foundations in open educational resources (OER), and a big push by commercial publishers for “inclusive access” programs that make digital course materials available to all students more affordably , faculty embrace of digital materials has risen slowly.

Until now, it seems.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a breakthrough for digital materials generally and open educational resources in particular, the latest iteration of an annual report on faculty use of curricular materials suggests. “Turning Point for Digital Curricula: Educational Resources in US Higher Education, 2022,” from Bay View Analytics, finds among other things that the proportion of instructors who required the use of OER in their courses rose to 22 percent in spring 2022, up from 15 percent in fall 2020, when the last survey was conducted. The proportion of professors requiring students to use an inclusive access program in their courses more than doubled, to 19 percent from 8 percent in 2020.

And the proportion of faculty members who agreed that “students learn better from print materials than they do from digital” fell sharply, to 33 percent in 2022 from 43 percent in 2020.

“It seems like there was a major change from 2020 through 2021 in the way faculty think about teaching and learning,” says Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics, who conducted the survey with Julia E. Seaman, the firm’s research director. “We know from previous research that the faculty most likely to understand and adopt OER are those who teach online, are making major changes in their course courses and have experience with digital formats. Obviously all of those conditions were more prominent” because of the pandemic.

No Overnight Success

While the sharp uptick in usage of OER and digital materials appears sudden, it has been in the making for years.

Bay View has been this year more included this annual survey (which about 1,850 instructors and 900 campus administrators from colleges) for a decade now, and faculty awareness of open educational resources—freely available, openly licensed course materials—has steadily crept up over time.

This year, for the first time, more than half of instructors said they were aware of OER using Bay View’s “strict” definition of awareness, which factors in not only whether professors say they are familiar with what open educational resources are but also whether they report familiarity with the licensing of copyrighted material.

But actual usage has lagged, influenced by a range of factors: lack of awareness by more than half of instructors; faculty inertia (building open resources from scratch, like many forms of experimentation, can be time-consuming); nagging doubts about the quality of OER materials (fueled in part by commercial publishers who invested heavily in supplemental teaching materials that many OER producers struggle to match); and the diffusion of the OER marketplace and the lack of central structures and advocates for open materials (there has been no equivalent to the Association of American Publishers in the OER world, let alone Pearson or Wiley, though one may be emerging in the form of OpenStax, which has become a visible player).

Advocacy for OER and low-cost digital materials has been on the increase, though. California made a massive $115 million commitment to stimulate the creation of zero-textbook-cost programs at the state’s 116 community colleges, following on similar but smaller efforts in New York and elsewhere. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a $65 million effort to build low-cost, openly licensed digital courses in 20 general education subjects that enroll the most nationally students, with the goal of closing equity gaps.

But as is true of so many aspects of higher education, and of society, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the existing landscape upside down. The closure of campuses and shift to remote learning in spring 2020 forced just about every instructor to rethink how and what they teach, creating what seemed like fertile ground for experimentation with OER and digital materials. But when Bay View Analytics surveyed faculty members in fall 2020, usage of OER had barely budged, leading Jeff Seaman to speculate at the time that “the full range of adjustments that faculty had to cope with in changing online instruction may have fully occupied them , restricting the time” they might have spent exploring innovative new curricular approaches.

This year’s survey, conducted in spring 2022, after another three terms of faculty experience with more online and blended learning during COVID’s long tail, reflects meaningful changes in faculty attitudes and practices.

In terms of perceptions, the survey asked instructors to gauge how the pandemic had changed their approach to and views on teaching. Majorities said it had increased their acceptance of digital materials (68 percent) and opinions of online learning (54 percent), while professors overwhelmingly said they viewed their interaction with students and collaboration among students as having worsened.

Faculty: the experience of teaching during a pandemic impacted the following: acceptance of digital materials, opinion of online learning, cost to student of teaching materials, student access to teaching materials, studenty-faculty communications, collaboration among students, faculty control in selecting course materials.

More than two-thirds of instructors, for instance, reported requiring students to use online homework systems, up from fewer than half two years ago, and the proportion of professors requiring use of video and instructional software also jumped, as seen below.

Faculty: curriculum materials required in teaching by year: online homework system;  texbooks, print or digital;  articles/case studies;  video/film;  software;  other: supplies, calculator, data sets, classroom clicker, etc.

Three-quarters of instructors agreed that digital materials give students greater flexibility (which was a priority during the roller-coaster ride of bouncing between in-person and virtual learning during COVID), and about two-thirds expressed concern about the cost of course materials for their students (though fewer than the comparative group of administrators Bay View surveyed).Faculty and administrator respond to

Meanwhile, while more professors continue to agree than disagree that “students learn better from print materials than they do from digital” (33 percent agreed, 17 percent disagreed and the remainder were neutral), the proportion agreeing dropped sharply from previous years.

Faculty: “students learn better from print materials than they do from digital,

Professors continue to have widely divergent preferences on digital versus print curricular materials. Bay View asked instructors to rank their preference for print texFaculty: preference continuum for print or digital by disciplinets or digital courseware is on a scale of 100, and the responses were fairly even distributed across the continuum, with no 10-percentage-point segment attracted more than 15 percent of the responses.

And preference for print versus varied significantly by discipline.

Three disciplines—history/government, psychology and humanities—slightly favored print. As seen in the chart at right, instructors in economics, business administration, engineering and the computer sciences solidly favored digital course materials, while the rest rated themselves as preferring a mix.

OER Adoption

Based on those results, it isn’t surprising, then, that faculty use of open educational resources grew faster than in any other year since Bay View has been counting.

Fourteen percent of all instructors said they had made some OER materials required in their courses, 8 percent said they OER materials were both required and supplemental, and another 18 percent said they had made OER available as supplemental materials. OER adoption was highest among instructors in introductory courses (where nearly a third of instructors made OER materials required for students).

Faculty: use of OER materials in courses by year, with responses from 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022.

Publishers Benefit, Too

Open educational resources might be favored by many students and advocates because they cost the least. But OER isn’t the only beneficiary of the faculty’s growing embrace of digital materials.

The various digital initiatives from commercial publishers focus on having institutions and individual instructors require students to pay a one-time up-front fee (often folded into their tuition bills) for access to all their materials for a specific course or a set of courses in a term. The programs were a response from publishers to the textbook rental market and the growth of OER and other digital alternatives.

The Bay View report finds that faculty awareness and usage of inclusive access is growing alongside that of OER, as seen in the charts below.

Faculty: Inclusive access awareness

Faculty: required inclusive access subscription in teaching;  responses from 2018, 2020 and 2022.

“The publishing market is so much more competitive today than it was even four years ago, to the frustration of a lot of OER folks who think the publishers are using some of their tactics,” Seaman said. “If the commercial publishers had not moved as fast and as aggressively as they did to create their own digital options, the growth of OER would be even greater.”

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