Oct. 2, 2018
Today the Department of Education announced the recipients of the Open Textbook Pilot, a $5 million grant program launched in March to help institutions of higher education create or expand their use of open educational resources (OER), the first major investment in OER by Congress. At the same time that New America and others in the OER community applauded the effort and intention of the program, we were also skeptical of its implementation. With little input from OER experts, a narrow application period, and lenient licensing guidelines, the program created the potential for loopholes in meeting its requirements. Regardless, the Department has announced it will award one grant to a consortium of universities, helmed by the University of California, Davis.
With 11 partner institutions, UC Davis will use the grant to expand its LibreTexts project, a non-profit platform started at the university in 2009 to house open-access college textbooks across a range of fields. With the $4.9 million in funding (accounting for administrative costs), the consortium “will build a library of publications on career and technical topics, with a focus on chemistry textbooks that will add up to a zero-cost textbook option for a bachelor’s degree curriculum certified by the American Chemical Society,” according to Inside Higher Ed. Other members of the consortium include four-year and community colleges across the Midwest and California, as well as Prince George’s Community College in Maryland.
Ahead of the application period, the Department suggested it would make between one and three grants to consortia of at least three institutions of higher education (IHE). Though the number of grants made is on the lowest end of the promised range—despite pushback from Congress—the number of institutions that are part of the award, as well as the reach and scope of the project itself, are promising. Because LibreTexts is a broad-based effort in more than a dozen states, it has potential to meet the grant’s absolute priority of increasing college affordability for the maximum number of students.
Another absolute priority UC Davis addresses is degree completion, which requires the project build upon existing materials for courses at different levels in a program's course sequence. With its focus on sequenced chemistry textbooks, it seems this project has potential toward this goal as well. In addition to chemistry materials, the proposal includes funding to expand materials on statistics, psychology, and neuroscience. Whether or not those materials will result in complete, sequenced courses is unclear.
Ahead of the application period, New America highlighted some of the key issues that Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Angus King (I-ME), and Tina Smith (D-MN) flagged to the Department in a congressional oversight letter. Chief among them is the competitive priority, which gave additional points to applicants that made use of learning technologies in their proposal. There is no requirement that these technologies needed to implement OER projects also be openly licensed. Therefore, if technologies developed as part of the grant are not also openly licensed, the program runs the risk of costing, rather than saving, students money. Though the winning application does include a goal to develop “leading-edge” technology as part of the project, the Department likely made a safe investment in LibreTexts. Since it’s a well-known and constantly-revised OER platform, it’s likely to remain free and open to students throughout future technical advances.
Other key issues in the senators’ letter included the limited application window, which was 30 days, and the number of awards, which we argued was too few for impact. By offering only one award, the Department is putting a great deal of pressure on the recipients it chose to fund. Though a surprise to some, the choice to award only one grant is consistent with the Department’s intentions ahead of the application window. What’s more, by choosing LibreTexts as that grantee, it will likely maximize the possible impact that it could have while making only one award.
Many of these implementation concerns were addressed last week when Congress approved legislation that will renew funding for an additional $5 million in FY19, included in the Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act of 2019. Many of the changes suggested by the OER community—including a longer application period, more awards, and stronger open-licensing requirements—are included in the renewal. The number of awards is particularly important, as the renewal requires at least 20 to be made in the second year. Such a drastic increase in the number of grants will mean a drastic decrease in the amount of each award, likely producing some very different projects in 2019.
One concern left unanswered in the renewal is the Department’s failure to consult with OER experts before the application window. Because the Department sidestepped a public comment period and did not include OER experts beforehand, the changes that OER experts suggested couldn’t be implemented in the first round. Though the changes will be implemented in 2019, they will necessarily make for a much different type of grant program, and we encourage the Department to solicit input from IHEs and from OER experts as it moves forward. With every stakeholder involved, the Open Textbook Pilot has great potential for increasing college affordability at UC Davis and well beyond.