Open Educational Resources (OER): One Path to Making Higher Ed More Affordable

When I was a new faculty member, I chose the textbooks that my new department recommended. Later, I tried a few other textbooks, but really carefully reviewing a textbook takes a lot of effort, more than I was willing to invest as a tenure-track assistant professor. After a few years, I decided that most texts, at least at the introductory level, were pretty much the same and that I could teach successfully using any of them. I think that’s probably true for any experienced instructor.

Anyone who has paid attention to higher education must be aware of the high cost of textbooks. Many new introductory texts are approaching the $300 level. Not only are textbooks expensive, but data recently published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics makes clear that over the past decade their price has increased faster than tuition or any other component of higher education. (See the yellow line in the figure).

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, College tuition and fees increase 63 percent since January 2006 on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/college-tuition-and-fees-increase-63-percent-since-january-2006.htm (visited September 06, 2016).
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, College tuition and fees increase 63 percent since January 2006 on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/college-tuition-and-fees-increase-63-percent-since-january-2006.htm (visited September 06, 2016).

Mankiw,’s Principles of Economics, the market leader in my field, is priced at $329 on Amazon.com. Sure, that text covers two semesters, but still it’s a lot of money. Are these books worth the price? I think it’s fair to say that traditionally faculty have assumed so, but it’s hard to say since I’ve never seen any study published on the effectiveness of commercial textbooks at producing student learning.

Estimates of annual textbook costs range from $500 to more than $1000 per student. Note the disconnect between the price per book and the spending per student. How can we reconcile these two points? One way is understand that 50% of college students report going without the text required for a course. Another way is to recognize that increasingly students spend their textbook dollars on used books or rentals, which while cheaper than new books are still pricey.

There is an alternative: Open Educational Resources (OER). For those not familiar, OER are course materials ranging from lecture notes, to syllabi, to sample assignments, quizzes & exams, to text materials and complete textbooks, available on the Internet. Popularized by Merlot.org and MIT’s OpenCourseware initiative (http://ocw.mit.edu ), OER are free to use, to modify, to distribute, and to retain a copy.

Like many new things, OER have generated pushback. Critics have made claims like “OER can’t be any good, because it’s free” or “OER doesn’t go through the standard peer-review process used by commercial publishers, so it can’t be any good.” When challenged, they admit “There may be some good bits of OER: things individual faculty members have put together to help teach some specific topic, but if you wanted to replace a commercial text, you would have to spend a huge amount of time to find enough bits across the internet to cover your whole curriculum.”

These concerns reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of OER today.

Indeed, there are complete OER textbooks available, especially at the introductory level.  These texts go through a peer-review process that is every bit as rigorous as that done with commercial textbooks. The first claim above confuses value with price. The fact that OER textbooks are free (or very low cost) to the user does not mean that they were not costly to produce, though without the large sales forces of commercial publishers to support, the costs are significantly smaller. OER publishers simply use a different business model than traditional publishers, being typically funded by grants from the major higher education philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlitt foundation and others. Additionally, OER textbooks have been and continue to be assessed across several dimensions. (See http://openedgroup.org/). The consensus of these studies is that students learn at least as much using OER texts as with commercial texts.

The challenge then for faculty is how to find appropriate and high quality OER in their fields to replace traditional commercial textbooks. But it’s not that difficult. One could go to the catalogs of OER publishers, like OpenStax.org and LumenLearning.com. Or one could use a more general OER catalog from one of several universities, such as the following:

Once you begin to explore OER, you’ll discover it’s merely the gateway to the broader world of Open Education. For more information on all these issues, see the UMW OER Summit website at http://umw-oer-summit.economooc.com/.

Next up: Textbooks versus Digital Learning Platforms.

Steve Greenlaw is a Professor in the UMW Economics Department.  He teaches in the First Year Seminar Program, as well as courses in domestic and international macroeconomics, and research methods.  His scholarly interests are in pedagogy and digital learning.  He is the principal economics expert for both the OpenStax Principles of Economics and the Lumen Learning Waymaker Principles of Economics texts.

Image by Eli Samuelu license CC0 1.0