April 6, 2021

Take 5… open educational resources

Posted by Laura Guertin

It’s been some time since I’ve written a “Take 5” post, but I thought this format would be good to bring back and highlight some of the material featured in a webinar I attended from AAC&U titled Quality, Equity, Affordability: Why Open Educational Resources and Why Now (April 5, 2021; AAC&U members can sign in to view the recording). Below is a description of the webinar content:

Open educational resources (OER) are educational materials, from single lessons to entire textbooks, that are free for faculty and students to use, customize, and share. Their adoption and utilization in course settings have been proven to be a viable affordability strategy for higher education; however, recent research is also revealing that OER can also positively influence quality and equity concerns. Panelists during this webinar will share the outcomes that have been attributed to OER, while also showing how OER can be leveraged to encourage more equitable, inclusive, and diverse classrooms.

There were three main questions that guided the presentation:

  • How does a socially-just open education look during a nationwide racial awakening and a global pandemic?
  • What are commitments and promises open education needs to revisit?
  • What now takes priority in open education?

This panel of speakers raised some valuable and important points – but what also grabbed my attention were the resources and links attendees were sharing in the chat. I’ve group some of these items for this Take 5 post.


[1] The shift to online teaching during the pandemic did not show an increased level of adoption of OER as required course material

In the report Digital Texts in the Time of COVID, the collected data from >3,000 higher education faculty in Fall 2020 show that the pattern of required course materials changed very little from last year’s academic term. The primary change for textbooks was a move to digital as an alternative or sole delivery mechanism. Yet despite a growth in awareness of digital textbooks (for a fee) and OER (for free) among faculty, this awareness did not correspond with a growth in adoption for OER textbooks. There was, however, a growth in the adoption of OER supplemental materials.


[2] OER and student success

A 2018 paper in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education explored The Impact of Open Educational Resources on Various Student Success Metrics (free to access PDF). Data were collected from >21,000 undergraduate students enrolled in eight different courses across biology, history, psychology, and sociology, at the University of Georgia. In addition to showing that OER resources provide a cost-saving for students reducing student debt, utilization of OER improved end-of-course grades and decreased DFW (D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades) rates for all students but even at greater rates for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education.


[3] OER and faculty: instructor ratings, tenure and promotion

In Frontiers in Education, Nusbaum and Cuttler (2020) looked at the Hidden Impacts of OER: Effects of OER on Instructor Ratings and Course Selection (free to access online). What they found was that “instructors assigned to use OER were rated more positively than those assigned a commercial textbook and students were more likely to select courses that had no course costs.” Higher course evaluations by students certainly help early career and teaching-line faculty that have their annual evaluations weighted so heavily on student reviews – but what about how faculty colleague reviewers and how they view the time/attention put into developing OER or using existing OER? The Driving OER Sustainability for Student Success (DOERS3) Collaborative has prepared an adaptable advisory model to guide faculty in thinking strategically in how they present, share, and frame their OER contributions.


[4] Is OER adoption (financially) sustainable?

In a 2016 paper from Education Policy Analysis Archives, Wiley et al. report on The Tidewater Z-Degree and the INTRO Model for Sustaining OER Adoption (free to access PDF). The paper acknowledges the cost savings and academic benefits to students when faculty adopt OER, but this paper does an exploration into the financial costs to faculty and the institution with using OER. “This article introduced the INTRO model, demonstrating both that OER adoption lowers the drop rate among students in those OER-adopting courses (improving their academic success while decreasing their cost to attend) and that the decrease in tuition refunds associated with the decrease in drops amounts to a substantial new source of revenue for the institution. In the case of Tidewater Community College, using OER across a single degree program could increase its tuition revenue by over $100,000 per year –while improving student outcomes and decreasing the cost to attend college.”


[5] Example: California ZTC (Zero Textbook Cost) degree

From 2017-2019, California community colleges received $5 million in state funding to launch the Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree initiative to enable 23 colleges to develop 34 degree or certificate pathways where textbook costs had been completely eliminated through the use of free OER or other free course materials. A community of practice was formed, supported by technical assistants and webinars, workshops, summits and panels. An Equity Champions Program was also established “to help grantee colleges to sustain and link their ZTC degree work with other strategic student success initiatives including student equity & achievement, guided pathways, and degree completion.” In the end, “23,373 students [saved] approximately $42,912,828 in textbook costs resulting in an 858% ROI (return on investment) from the original $5 million invested by the CA Community College Chancellor’s Office”, along with a documented increase in academic performance for students in OER courses.




Making resources freely available to students has its benefits – but there are also costs. Are the technologies used for these OERs accessible on mobile devices and/or require high-speed access, special browser plug-ins, etc.? Are faculty compensated for preparing the OER, for maintaining/updating the OER? How are current events and societal challenges (as mentioned by AAC&U) making it into OER – or are they? The research shows there are clear benefits to students using OER and not having to purchase textbooks – but let’s look at the entire OER system to make sure it is accessible, fair, and sustainable for not only students but faculty as well.


To explore additional sources on OER, you may want to check out these sources: