College students already struggling to afford tuition and fees often get hit with a surprise extra cost—expensive textbooks and other course material that can add hundreds of dollars to a student’s financial burden. State higher education leaders, faculty, librarians, and students themselves are championing a solution to this problem: increasing the use of open educational resources (OER).
Open educational resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that are free of cost and access barriers, and which also carry legal permission for open use, generally through an open license. Rather than requiring students to purchase an expensive textbook, faculty who use OER direct students to online or other electronic resources that are free for students to use.
Executive Director of the Library Matt Bejune was an early advocate of OER, starting in 2016 when he piloted a mini-grant program to encourage faculty to convert their classes. Since then, more than 4,500 Worcester State students have saved $225,000 in textbook costs, and WSU has become a regional resource for information on OER. Bejune now serves on the state Department of Higher Education OER Advisory Council, which is sponsoring several activities during Open Education Week on March 1-5.
Awareness of OER continues to be the biggest hurdle to wider implementation, according to Bejune.
“Once faculty do learn about OER, they become advocates. They discover the quality is there, and they hear their students saying thank you” for not requiring them to purchase textbooks, says Bejune. “Faculty may have to work hard to find the open resources they need, but it’s worth the effort.”
Associate Professor Miriam Plavin-Masterman, Ph.D., and Associate Professor Elizabeth Siler, Ph.D., both of the Department of Business Administration and Economics, were early adopters of OER and have presented to state legislators for support of funding of statewide OER initiatives. As more faculty become comfortable with the concept, more courses have been converted.
“It’s important we lessen the financial burden for students who struggle with the high cost of books,” says Assistant Professor Nathan Angelo, Ph.D., of the History and Political Science Department, who was able to convert three of the four classes he is teaching this spring. He agrees with Bejune, “The problem is awareness. I didn’t start to really consider using OER in my classes until I heard Matt speak about it at a recent student senate meeting. It makes sense as long as there are high quality resources available, and there are in many cases.”
Survey courses, such as his two sections of Introduction to American Government, have plenty of options for print-on-demand textbooks or other open formats, while more specialized topics take more creativity.
“It also depends how you structure your class, and if you use a textbook as a supplement or as the primary source of your teaching,” he says. “An added benefit is the flexibility to use updated material to keep a topic relevant, which can be done more frequently if you aren’t relying on a printed textbook.”
From a student point of view, OER is another weapon in the battle to provide equitable access to higher education.
“As college students, we are expected to be the best version of ourselves. With the ever-increasing price for higher education, we are again left at the bottom, expected to reach the top without the right support and resources. We are indirectly asked by the system to face alone the struggle that comes with the cost and price of higher education,” says Student Trustee Anna Johnson ’22, who is an OER Student Ambassador. “With Open Educational Resources, we can start breaking down barriers in higher education. We are able to concentrate less on the cost of books and devote that time to learning and being the better version of ourselves.”
Activities related to Open Education Week include:
- Members of the Massachusetts Student Advisory Council will talk about how students are increasing OER awareness at their respective campuses and at a statewide level, using their voices to create an equitable learning environment for all students, on Wednesday, March 3, at 12 p.m. To register: https://bit.ly/3btSJU3
- Ceit De Vito of Bunker Hill Community College and Marilyn Billings of UMass Amherst will offer a taped presentation focused on DEI and OER along with open pedagogy. Matt Bejune will send out the link when available.
In addition, an OER Working Group white paper offered other ways faculty can help the OER movement, including:
- Knowing the cost of required course material
- Talking to students about how they are impacted by the cost of textbooks
- Reviewing OER options in their discipline, talking to other colleagues about OER
- Encouraging conversations or presentations about OER in their departments
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