OER: Cutting College Costs By Nixing Textbooks

A full 65 percent of students have gone without buying a college textbook due to its high cost, according to a U.S. PIRG Education Fund study released in 2014. But what if no teachers required students to buy any books for their classes, and students could access all the materials they needed online for free? That’s the idea behind Open Educational Resources (OER).

Companies like Lumen Learning in Portland, OR, are helping schools to replace expensive textbooks with OER. To date, Lumen is working with 100 schools, primarily community colleges whose students tend to face the greatest financial barriers to higher education.

Nationwide, some 50 institutions have or are in the process of converting entire degree programs to OER, meaning a student can graduate without ever buying a commercial textbook, noted David Wiley, chief academic officer, Lumen Learning. Wiley also serves as an adjunct in Brigham Young University’s graduate program in Instructional Psychology and Technology where he leads the Open Education Group. We talked to Wiley about what OER can do both to decrease college costs and increase academic success rates.


My College Planning Team

MCPT: Can you explain the basics of open educational resources?

Wiley: The ‘open’ in open educational resources means two things. First, it means free and unfettered access. So not only do I not have to pay, but I don’t have to create an account, I don’t have to give you my e-mail address in exchange for access or type in my zip code or gender. I can click on a link and just go directly to the resource and there’s no cost and no hassle.

Number two is a formal legal grant of copyright permissions that tell the whole world that after you’ve accessed this for free, you hereby are granted permission to retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. So I can download my own copy, and I can open it up and make changes to it. I can delete examples that I think will be confusing to my students and replace them with new examples. I can take two chapters from here and a video from there and a simulation from somewhere else and put all those things together to create a new thing. And whether I’m talking about a mashup that I’ve made, or a revised or improved version that I made, or just a verbatim copy that I downloaded, I also have permission to share that with others. So I can post it on my web site and give others the same permissions that I received.

MCPT: What role does Lumen Learning play in OER?

Wiley: The easiest way to understand Lumen’s role is by metaphor. Sunlight is free and everyone has access to it. But there are still solar power companies that create technology and have expertise that can help you turn sunlight into power to use it productively. So Lumen is essentially like a solar power company, except we provide technology and expertise that helps you take all of this free OER and use it to effectively drive learning.

MCPT: What is the potential savings for students who use OER instead of textbooks?

Wiley: You’re either paying nothing for textbooks or a small course fee. In a study that my research group at BYU did a few years ago, we came out with an estimate of right around $100 (in savings) per course on average, which is comparable to several other studies that have been done.

MCPT: Besides the financial benefits, does OER benefit students in other ways?

Wiley: There are a bunch of problems with the way that students try to approach textbooks today because textbooks cost so much. Students will either not buy them at all, or they’ll buy them and immediately sell them back, or they’ll just rent them, or they’ll buy an access pass that gives them six months of access in an online system. All of those coping strategies result in students not having a book at the end of the term.

So open educational resources, because everyone can make and keep a copy of it, provides students with the ability to build up a library so they can go back and refer to it in later courses or when they’re out in the workforce.

Maybe more interestingly, some of the most exciting things that are happening with open educational resources are where faculty members are working together with students to make improvements to the textbook. I’ve done this in several classes that I’ve taught. You can assign students to go find an example of a principle we just studied in a popular movie, TV show or book and write two paragraphs about it. And we can actually include that in the (OER) book, so the next student who comes along and reads it says, oh yea, I’ve seen “Game of Thrones” or I’ve read that book and, OK, now I see how that principle actually applies to the real world. You can engage students in actually creating the official course materials, which they think is a lot more fun. And it builds up and improves the quality of resources over time. I add the students’ names as coauthors to the textbooks when I pull their materials, so it gives them some recognition for the work that they do. It’s really exciting and energizing.

MCPT: Statistics show students perform better when using OER instead of  textbooks. Have there been studies explaining why this is?

Wiley: There are two explanations as to why students do better when assigned OER. One is between 20 and 25 percent of students report that they regularly just don’t buy textbooks. So somewhere between 1 and 4 and 1 and 5 students in your class isn’t reading the homework assignment before they come to class, isn’t prepared, and doesn’t have access to the homework problems unless they can beg, borrow or steal a copy from a friend long enough to get the homework done. So when you’ve got that many students that are that far down in the hole, making sure that every single student has access to all their materials on the very first day makes a huge difference.

The second thing that contributes to those improvements are the things that a faculty member can do pedagogically with OER that they can’t do with textbooks, like asking students to rewrite portions of the book. And it turns out that a lot of those things are a lot more interesting and engaging than the typical kinds of exercises that we give students.

MCPT: Does OER provide any benefits to schools or faculty?

Wiley: On the faculty side it makes the faculty member’s job more fun. When you’re staring at a stack of 50 essays to grade and you know that as soon as you give them back half the students are going to throw them away without even looking at them and the other half are barely going to read the comments you give, that can be kind of disheartening. But when you’re grading work that you know is actually going to end up in public, back in the textbook, contributing to other students’ learning, that’s more energizing and fun.

On the institution side there are benefits as well. When faculty assigns OER, the students who register for those courses drop at a lower rate than students who register for sections of the same courses that use commercial textbooks. If a student drops before the add/drop deadline, the institution refunds their tuition. So if an institution can change the drop rate from 8 percent to 2 percent, then that’s a lot of tuition that the institution would have refunded in the past that now it can keep.

In the community college context where students have to pay for each credit they take, we have seen some pretty compelling evidence that when students are assigned OER instead of commercial textbooks, they take the money that they save on textbooks and they use it to enroll in more courses. And that is money that, instead of leaving the state and going to some multinational publisher, stays inside the institution.

MCPT: Is there reluctance among some faculty members to move to OER?

Wiley: There are some courses, particularly senior level, specialty niche courses, where there aren’t a lot of OER that even exist. Even among the lower level classes where there is a sufficient amount of OER, changing your whole course design from using one textbook to just using another commercial textbook that is very similar to it is a lot of work. Similarly, changing from a commercial textbook to OER is a lot of work. So a lot of the lag you see with people not adopting OER as quickly as they might has to do with they’re just comfortable with the book they have and don’t feel compelled yet to invest the effort it would take to change from a commercial book to OER.

MCPT: Is there anything parents or students can do to encourage more schools to move to OER?

Wiley: As students are looking at colleges that they are thinking about attending, they can call the admissions office and ask, “How many people on your campus use open educational resources?” If schools kept hearing that question over and over again from prospective students, it would motivate them to start thinking more about that.