Five questions for Amanda Bickel

State expert on Open Educational Resources reflects on recent progress
By Staff

Growth in the development and use of Open Educational Resources (OER) across the CU system is creating meaningful savings for students at the four campuses. Those efforts are often energized by investment from the state via the Colorado OER Grant Program, which earlier this year awarded nearly a quarter of a million dollars in grants to CU faculty.

Five questions for Amanda Bickel
Amanda Bickel

OER supporters also can be found at the Capitol, including among the members and staff of the Joint Budget Committee (JBC). For years, Amanda Bickel, Chief Legislative Budget and Policy Analyst with the JBC Staff, has encouraged members of the General Assembly to make Colorado a leader in OER. Here, she reflects on her time at the JBC focusing on higher education and OER.

1. How did you come to be involved in OER in Colorado since the start of state funding in 2017?

My OER journey began at a family gathering in a deep conversation with a librarian, who was my first cousin’s partner and who was working on OER in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. I was acutely aware of the financial barriers higher education poses for so many students, and I liked the idea of something that might help to relieve that burden.

My subsequent research indicated real cost savings for students and that faculty curating their own materials improves the teaching and learning experience. I was struck by the research indicating that students failing to obtain learning materials damaged them academically and that they would choose not to take certain classes because of materials cost.

The Joint Budget Committee took interest in my presentation of OER as a briefing issue in fall 2016, and I then arranged meetings with the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) and met with librarians and staff from the higher education institutions. That was the clincher. There was clearly a group of passionate people at Colorado higher education institutions already actively working on OER.

Next, the CDHE staff, the institutional representatives and I proposed a study to provide the foundation for more work ahead. It was an appealing bipartisan issue: Put in some resources and save money for students. The JBC agreed to sponsor SB 17-258, which authorized the study. The resulting report provided the basis for the JBC to launch a statewide OER initiative, and the HB 18-1331 bill was born.

The HB 18-1331 bill added a staff person in the CDHE to coordinate the OER program, retained the OER Council created by the previous bill, and created the OER grant program. Even with the 2020 pandemic fiscal crisis, we kept the program going, and renewed it for five years in SB 21-215 at the $1 million grant level, plus the council and staff position. I was very engaged with the council in the early years, but, as I'd hoped, it really took off. The energy of council representatives has kept the initiative moving forward.

The goal of the program has always been to continue nurturing OER at the institutional grassroots. I continue to hope we'll reach a tipping point when the first question a faculty member will think about when they want to design a new course is whether they can use OER for it. So, I love the way that Colorado’s OER program encourages institutions to build institutional structure to support OER over the long term. Ultimately, the only way OER will become really big is when institutions, faculty and students start to think of it as a “normal” or even default choice for courses.

2. How has state funding of OER grants and programs benefited higher education students in Colorado?

To quote from the 2023 state OER report, more than 1,600 courses have been converted to OER by grantees, with 131,000 students enrolled in courses that use OER annually. There’s an estimate of $31.5 million in cost savings for students over four grant cycles. Those are impressive figures, and they will only grow bigger.

As we know, once a course has been redesigned, that design is likely to stick for quite a few years, so the benefits aren’t simply in the first year a course is launched but in all the years after. I have continued to encourage the department and higher education institutions to keep beefing up the research on impacts. That’s a key tool when you're trying to build more resources for a program – be it from the state legislature, private grants or within an institution.

3. What is the role of Z-degrees – those with zero cost textbooks and materials – in OER?

The Z-degree concept has really raised the profile of OER.

When a college simply has a random scattering of OER courses – no matter how wonderful those may be – it’s much harder for students to take that into consideration in their financial planning. Students have to balance so many issues – their course schedules as well as course costs – so even if they would like an OER course, they might or might not be able to obtain it.

On the other hand, when they choose a Z-degree pathway, they can be confident that all their courses will fit that criterion. Just as important – perhaps more important – faculty and staff can be very intentional and thoughtful when designing OER courses. With an entire Z-degree, you’ve created a mechanism whereby faculty can collaborate to build a coherent educational program around materials that they have personally determined to be valuable. You’ve at least created the possibility for better – as well as cheaper – education.

I also think it can send an important message to other students and faculty that OER are effective and that they are popular. Certainly, it’s been very exciting for me to see that there are now quite a lot of Z-degrees out there in the state: again, to quote the latest state OER report, 33% of courses at Aims Community College, 90% of GT Pathways courses at Colorado Northwestern Community College, and 85% of School of Education courses at Colorado State University.

4. Why are the Z-degree efforts at CU Denver’s Math and Statistical Sciences Department especially significant?

I am so excited that CU Denver is going to launch a Z-degree in math. I'm hoping that it’s rolling out this year as planned. When I started working on OER, I often heard that how to deal with problem sets was one of the big obstacles to going to OER in a field like math. But it looks like that problem is being overcome, which is huge.

5. Moving forward, OER at the JBC is assigned to Senior Budget and Policy Analyst Louellen Lowe. What reflections can you impart from your seven years of involvement with OER?

This is a really exciting program. Learn more about it and spend some time with practitioners. Folks who work on this are passionate. Try to figure out where the program should go from here. There are a lot of publishers out there that would like to sell their wares to faculty and institutions.

Because it doesn’t have commercial backing, OER has to be extra scrappy to get attention. And it does take real work on the part of faculty to develop OER courses. What will it take to move OER programs to the next level and get to that tipping point?

While I will no longer be making recommendations on the higher education OER program, I now oversee many programs in the Department of Education. There’s lots of interest on the part of legislators in improving the pathway between secondary and post-secondary education, and I see OER as critical to making that pathway more accessible. Legislators cannot dictate educational materials (nor should they), but I would like to figure out how we can make OER the most common tool for concurrent enrollment courses taken by high school students for college credit. I’m eager for new ideas on that. 

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