Open educational resources can help ease students' financial burden

Open Access Week, Oct. 23-29

Join the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching for a panel discussion with faculty and students on Oct. 24 (3-5 p.m., 198 Parks Library) about the impact of open educational resources in the classroom. Register at Learn@ISU, call 294-5357 or email

For some college students, it's a life-altering choice: Buy textbooks for the next semester or pay rent, buy groceries and fill up the car. An exaggeration? Not according to these statistics from a 2014 University of Massachusetts (Amherst) Library study of its students. Because of high textbook costs:

  • 53 percent of students took a class but didn't buy the textbook
  • 23 percent dropped a class
  • 24 percent took a different class or chose a different major

The problem, according to Curtis Brundy, ISU associate university librarian for scholarly communications and collections, is a lot of publishers pursue high profits at the expense of cash-strapped students.

"Textbooks can be a real profit generator for these companies, and students may have no choice but to buy the book or not take the class," Brundy said.

Brundy said the library and other units across campus, including the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the ISU Book Store, believe students could save money through open educational resources (OER). It's a concept that's been catching on with faculty at college campuses throughout the country and Brundy hopes Iowa State faculty are ready to jump on board.

What is OER?

OER are teaching, learning and research resources -- primarily digital -- that are in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license for use by others. In some cases, the licensing allows materials to be adapted to fit the needs of a particular class. Or faculty can create their own OER materials from scratch. Examples of OER include course materials, modules, streaming videos, tests, software, digital textbooks or anything that supports open access to learning.

OER materials are available via several repositories, including:

Brundy suggests faculty browse these websites to get a sense of available resources but admits current OER materials don't cover all academic bases. And he acknowledges that, for instructors, revamping class curriculum is time-consuming, somewhat costly and just plain hard work.

"The reason some folks might want to go with a commercial textbook is that it gets you up and running," Brundy said.

But, he added, "In some classes, faculty may be able to pull together some resources that lead to a better learning experience for the students."

OER has caught the attention of ISU's Student Government, which may consider a resolution later this fall to request more faculty to use OER.

"In a climate where the cost of higher education continues to soar, anything we can do to increase accessibility and make college more affordable is an initiative worth taking on," said Cody West, Student Government president.

Minigrant program

To entice faculty to consider switching from traditional textbooks to OER, the library is launching a minigrant program next spring to support OER development and adoption. A request for proposals will go out in early 2018 and grants would be distributed next summer. For now, $5,000 in grant money will be available with award amounts based on the projects. Depending on the program's success, more grant money may be available in the future.

ISU Book Store perspective

One of the OER champions on campus is the ISU Book Store, which may seem like a conflict of interest considering the bookstore makes money selling textbooks to students. In reality, John Wierson, supervisor of digital course materials for the bookstore, said his job is to provide students with affordable options.

"Textbook affordability is always our goal," Wierson said. "There are things we can do to help with that."

The bookstore already offers students several cost-saving options, such as used, rental and e-books; access codes (used to retrieve online digital resources, including e-text, instead of buying bundles of physical texts packaged with the code) and inclusive access. With inclusive access, the bookstore negotiates bulk discount prices for digital materials for particular classes. Wierson said the concept was slow to take off the past few semesters, but more faculty chose the option this fall. He said 9,100 students are enrolled in inclusive access courses this semester, which amounts to student savings of about $600,000.

The bookstore already offers students some OER options, such as links on its website to e-texts at the library, free e-texts and low-cost physical texts through OER repositories, and inexpensive faculty-authored content.

"We want to work with the library and CELT on OER awareness," he said. "We want to find out what's needed and be able to provide as much support as we can."

Brundy hopes OER will take off at Iowa State once faculty learn more about it and how it can help reduce students' college expenses. 

"There's a real movement afoot and lots of universities are doing innovative things related to OER," Brundy said. "I think we're right in the midst of it all, and nobody knows what kind of interest we'll get on campus, but it's an exciting time."