Universities strive to provide equity and affordability for their all students. This can take the form of scholarships or reduced tuition fees. Many countries have a College Promise program to give free tuition and support services. One of the most underappreciated ways to improve student equity and college affordability is by using Open Educational Resources (OER). Open Source textbooks save a great deal of money when compared to the cost of commercial textbooks and paid electronic materials.
OER include textbooks, software, and other resources that can be used for free and repurposed by others. It creates powerful opportunities for a faculty to support students and student success. This is irrespective of size and influence of the institution.
So far universities have been slow to take advantage of such opportunities.
82 percent of universities have the autonomy to choose open source textbooks and course materials.
Although awareness of this fact has nearly tripled since 2014–15, adoption still lags far behind.
The use of OER material will require strategic planning and collaborative leadership.
Barbara Illowsky, a professor at De Anza College in California strongly believed in student equity. Students who needed access to course materials by the time classes began often received their aid within the second week of classes.
This meant that often they had to get into debt in order to properly prepare themselves for the start of class.
During the early 1990s, Illowsky and her co author Susan Dean wrote a low cost textbook on elementary statistics. She subsequently republished the book online in 2007 on the Openstax platform. It is now used at nearly one thousand universities and colleges worldwide.
OpenStax’s free and openly licensed textbooks are developed with the identical rigorous authorship and peer-review processes to traditional publishers. These Open Source textbooks have been instrumental in addressing the concerns of some faculties who viewed OER as lower quality than commercial rivals. In just one elementary statistics course at De Anza College students have saved over $3 million in textbook costs since 2007.
In 2012, C. Edward Watson, director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia had a similar experience. He and his staff recognised that the best opportunities to provide affordability and equity through OER came from instructors using expensive textbooks in large classes.
In 2013, his staff worked with an Introduction to Biology professor to change her course. It resulted in changing from using a $99 textbook to using OpenStax’s free biology textbook.
By the end of the next academic year, this OER adoption saved students $200,000.
The biology professor became a valuable OER advocate. With proof of how it worked Watson worked with two or three new faculties every year to transition their course materials to OER. Watson left UGA in 2017. By then over a dozen faculties had transitioned from using expensive textbooks to high-quality OER materials. Between 2013 and 2017 savings from these changes were estimated at nearly $4 million. Most importantly research conducted by Watson and his team found that using OER actually led to students gaining higher grades.