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A monthly newsletter that explores issues facing historically Black colleges and universities and follows the work of our HBCU Student Journalism Network. By Naomi Harris.

Hello there! Welcome to The Intersection, my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!

Diving into open education

What can happen if faculty provide materials at no cost for their students? It helps center the student voice in the classroom, according to a recent study by Achieving the Dream, national higher education nonprofit, and SRI Education, a research institute.

The open education movement is often touted for expanding accessibility, but there is limited research on how instructors can use open educational resources (OER) in the classroom and the impact it has on students.

Researchers reviewed eight community colleges, interviewed faculty, administrators and students to provide interested instructors with a framework of how to incorporate open education and culturally responsive practices in the classroom. They also assessed educational equity and suggested ways OER could help marginalized students.

One of the main findings was that instructors could focus more on student input.

“They had much more time to allow students to ask questions, to drive the conversation, to give them a chance to steer what they thought was important or interesting about the materials rather than just marching through the content of the course,” says SRI senior principal education researcher Rebecca Griffiths.

Researchers found that students were able to select topics to discuss, materials were often more inclusive and class became more of a collaboration. Discussions in class also connected to critical consciousness and social justice.

Open educational resources are free, commonly licensed or publicly licensed learning materials. Faculty or instructors are able to redesign their class curriculum as they replace proprietary materials. Reducing cost allows for more access to information but critics believe open access could present a challenge in quality without a vetting process.

Cost free materials

At Montgomery Community College, one of the institutions in the study, open resources allow students to work with their instructors as well as community members. Shinta Hernandez, the dean of the virtual campus, says the college supports OER and offers faculty resources and training opportunities to learn how to find free classroom materials from articles, videos, and other resources in their chosen fields.

The community college first adopted OER in 2015 before expanding the efforts and even creating a budget, Hernandez says. Since then the college has created courses without textbook costs and a General Studies degree, which incorporates general education classes and is based on open resources, says Hernandez.

Relying on OER materials gives students a chance to feel more represented, the study found. Montgomery College is ranked one of the most diverse community colleges in the country, and so providing more inclusive courses can help connect with students, Hernandez says.

“We incorporated materials about other groups of people, groups of people that you often don’t find in traditional proprietary textbooks. When students can see that in the materials, and they can see themselves theoretically speaking, they are much more engaged — much more interested. That can lead to greater success,” Hernandez says.

The study’s researchers put together a set of recommendations for instructors interested in OER. Researchers advise instructors to give students a chance to collaborate by selecting class topics or materials and to build a classroom culture that is welcoming and inclusive.

The study also outlined some challenges instructors face when adopting OER like lack of support from administrators, need for stipends or other financial help for professional development, and limited flexibility with courses.

Hernandez recommends colleges interested in redesigning classes should build a strong infrastructure, along with financial and administrative support, to help faculty through the process.

Adapting the approach in classes

Faculty at Montgomery College can also collaborate with one another. Through a teaching fellowship, faculty work together to create class assignments that use free licensed materials. Mary Robinson, an English professor, collaborated with another instructor in the business department.

Together, they created a business proposal assignment for students. Students in her class had to select from one of the United Nations 17 sustainable goals, develop a budget, create a timeline and then write up a proposal that outlined their new business idea — all with OER materials.

Robinson says she could build in more diversity in her lessons.

Her lessons were able to reflect the students in her class, especially as they defined business ideas that could help their own communities.

“We have students from all over the world,” she says. “They’re able to use these materials to develop proposals for their communities, their purview and how they see the need as opposed to saying, I want you to develop a proposal and it can only be for Montgomery County.”

Other professors also saw the approach as a chance to remove some of the cost burdens placed on students.

“I’ve always been a big proponent of cost-free textbooks, and especially our students. I know most of them are struggling and most of them are going to school and working,” says Gadis Effendi, a sociology professor.

Effendi partnered with other faculty in the psychology and archaeology departments to come up with materials and resources that focused on gender. In her classes, she notices how her students react more to the class materials as they found the assignment more relatable to their experiences and what they know.

College in Riverside

What are some of the barriers that get in the way of college for students? What are other ways to pursue careers outside of the traditional education pathway? To answer these questions and more, I visited Riverside, Calif., earlier this year. There, I talked with a range of people about their relationship to college and education.

I talked to a poet who found inspiration outside of class, a former Disneyland employee who found college as an opportunity and a community college transfer student who decided it was best to focus on her own success rather than comparing to others.

Some students found community college to be a place to find their passion. Others found classes too limiting or too white and dropped out. My conversations highlighted the individual paths students discover and how college does, or does not, fit in to how they see life working better for them.

“I was kind of just doing everything on my own and just showing up to the class. But really, I couldn’t and it was bringing me down,” says 23-year-old Rachel Francis, a student from Riverside City College. “I just realized that comparing myself to others and just trying to go fast wasn’t helping me. It wasn’t productive either. So I started focusing on myself.”

The series will be published soon. In the meantime, check out the first part of the college postcard project, reported from Stockton.

Recommended readings

What challenges get in Hispanic men’s way of earning a degree? A Colorado scholarship foundation wants to figure out the answer, according to this story by Jason Gonzales, who works for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

After remarks at an event at Saint Vincent College were deemed racist by many at the college, administrators created a new policy to respond to the controversy. Read more of the story by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed.

Thanks for reading!

Want to talk? Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.