Can Open Education Support Equity in Community Colleges?

College students working together

by Rebecca Griffiths, Ela Joshi, Emma Pellerin, and Audra Wingard
January 19, 2022

In partnership with Achieving the Dream (ATD) and with support from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, SRI Education is working to fill the gap in evidence on changes in instruction from the use of open educational resources (OER) in community colleges. Building on the prior study of the OER Degree Initiative, we are investigating how the use of OER can enable what are sometimes called “open educational practices” (OEP) and equity-focused instruction in community college courses. This study is ongoing, but we share a few early insights below.

What are open educational resources?
OER are openly licensed materials that can be freely used and re-purposed by others. The open intellectual property license permits their free reuse, revision, and redistribution.1

What are open educational practices?
Open educational practices promote learner-centered pedagogies that empower learners as co-producers of knowledge and value and incorporate learners’ backgrounds, needs, and voices in learning.

The potential of open education to change instructional practice in community colleges

Community colleges traditionally serve a larger percentage of systemically marginalized and underserved students. Understanding whether and how the use of OER can lead to more equitable instructional practices in these colleges is crucial and offers promise to increase equity in students’ learning experiences. Many traditional teaching practices such as lectures minimize student voice, and traditional materials and assignments, such as textbooks and standardized tests, often restrict instructors to a set curriculum that emphasizes memorization rather than knowledge creation and real-world problem-solving.

In contrast, the open education movement is rooted in the values of educational equity and social justice. Its underlying principles echo those of culturally responsive and sustaining educational theories, which have grown out of decades of research on how educational systems and practices should be redesigned to better serve students of color.1, 2 Using OER materials, instructors can design course assignments and materials that elevate cultural perspectives and educational experiences that engage and empower students from diverse backgrounds. Instructors who embrace open educational practices may also invite students to become co-pilots in instruction and generators of new knowledge by relinquishing hierarchical structures of authority and control.3 This may empower students to lead the learning agenda, choose curriculum materials, and write exam questions or generate examples to add to an OER textbook. These practices may result in courses that are more reflective of culturally and linguistically diverse students’ personal experiences and ways of knowing and learning, leading to greater educational equity.

What we are finding about use of open educational practices

Community college faculty face barriers to adopting open educational practices.

Creating OER and redesigning courses with open educational practices is time-consuming. Faculty may review, curate, or create instructional materials, revise learning activities, and rethink how they ask students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Finding time for this work is challenging in community colleges that have limited financial resources and faculty with greater teaching loads than faculty in 4-year colleges.4

Community colleges may need to meet strict content or standards requirements for courses that students need to transfer into a 4-year institution, limiting their flexibility to rethink learning objectives. The lists of suggested textbooks provided to faculty who teach transfer courses often do not include OER materials. As a result, faculty members may feel pressure to use the recommended resources and objectives, and traditional teaching practices, to ensure the course will meet transfer requirements.

In fact, several people we interviewed acknowledged an element of privilege in the implementation of open educational practices. Faculty members in well-resourced, 4-year institutions with greater autonomy and whose students may be more accustomed to unstructured, generative learning activities can enjoy significant advantages in using open educational practices compared to their community college colleagues.

At the same time, community college contexts provide some advantages for adopting open educational practices.

Community colleges are designed to be open and accessible for all students, and their roots in local communities can give faculty a better understanding of their students’ lives and backgrounds. Faculty members understand that cost saving and easy access to OER materials are important benefits for students from low-income backgrounds who make up a large share of community college enrollment.

Further, compared to faculty in 4-year institutions, community college faculty are typically expected to focus more on teaching and less on research. As one community college practitioner told us, the primary jobs of community college faculty “are teaching and learning, innovating in the classroom, and figuring out ways to improve student success, and we have the freedom to do that.”

Looking ahead in our study

Over the past two years, SRI has collaborated with ATD and eight community colleges with strong OER programs to examine how the adoption of openly licensed materials enables and drives open educational practices and culturally responsive teaching. Following the conclusion of the study in spring 2022, we will release a full report of our findings as well as a framework on these teaching and learning practices. We hope these learnings may be used by colleges to guide future efforts in implementing open education in their institutions.


1 Lambert, S. R. (2018). Changing our (dis)course: A distinctive social justice aligned definition of open education. Journal of Learning for Development, 5(3), Article 3, p. 239.
2 Bali, M., Cronin, C., & Jhangiani, R. S. (2020). Framing open educational practices from a social justice perspective. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1(10), 1–12.
3 DeRosa, R., & Jhangiani, R. (2018). Open pedagogy. In E. Mays (Ed.), A guide to making open textbooks with students (pp. 7– 20).
4 Yuen, V. (2020). The $78 billion community college funding shortfall. Center for American Progress.

Topics: Community colleges First-generation college students Low income Students of color