Students in Professor Bruce Madariaga’s economics class get a lesson in financial management before they step into the classroom. Instead of purchasing a textbook, which typically costs more than $100, students download an OER—free of charge.
OERs, or open educational resources, are books or other study materials that are provided at no cost to the user and are easily downloaded. The resources are typically peer reviewed.
The price of textbooks is one reason OERs are growing in popularity. A report released earlier this year by Student Public Interest Research Groups says the cost of textbooks increased more than 73 percent in the last decade. Students who do not complete college are 50 percent more likely than those who graduate to cite textbook costs as a major financial barrier, according to a study by the research firm Public Agenda.
Samantha Veneruso, professor of English and chair of the general education program, says the cost of books can be a big burden for students. “Imagine making minimum wage and having to pay $400 for textbooks each semester,” Veneruso says. “How many hours would you have to work just to pay for books?”
Veneruso is one of the principal investigators on a grant to create new degree programs using OERs. Achieving the Dream, a national community college reform network, awarded the College the grant earlier this year. She says OERs will not eliminate textbooks, but rather, will reduce costs and provide choices.
While the cost of textbooks is an obvious reason to use OERs, it is not the only one. Professors like the ability to customize and modify the materials they use—and students like the ability to digitally mark up the text and take notes on the screen.
Olivia Pritchard, a freshman, is using an OER in her biology class. She likes how easy OERs are to access. “You don’t need to lug around a big book whenever you want to study,” Pritchard says.
This may be one reason students read more with OERs.
After conducting two surveys, Professor Madariaga and his colleagues found students spend more time with the OER. The first survey was conducted in the spring of 2015, while students were using a traditional hard copy textbook. The second was in fall 2015, after a free online text was adopted from OpenStax, a popular site for OERs. Students using the OER read a significantly higher percentage of required readings and spent a bit more time with the resource each week.
That was enough to convince Instructional Dean Kathy Michaelian, who says OERs are a “very viable option.” And she is not the only one. The College has set an ambitious goal that by spring 2018, a student could earn a general studies degree without ever buying a textbook.