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Increasingly, higher education is less about memorization and more about problem solving. In years gone by, access to facts and viewpoints often involved the purchase or acquisition of books. Huge personal libraries were assembled by the well-educated wealthy in prior centuries. Now we all have access to the immense electronic library that we call the internet. As Julien Barbier points out, “The assumption of 19th century education was that building a student’s knowledge base is everything. But, today, with the biggest library that has ever existed at everyone’s fingertips (the internet), skills are what matter. The OS of education approach shifts 90% to 95% of a typical student’s time to applied learning. Content is not the problem. Learning how to learn is the future of education.”

Increasingly, college students have been found to be living on the outer edge of their finances. For many, food insecurity is a reality and housing is not regularly available, and the American Psychological Association has discussed how basic needs for college students are not being met:

A study of 43,000 students at 31 community colleges and 35 four-year universities in 20 states and Washington, D.C. found that 36% of college students are food insecure, and 36% are in precarious housing situations. The lead author of this report told National Public Radio, “It really undermines [college students’] ability to do well in school. Their grades suffer, their test scores appear to be lower, and overall, their chances of graduating are slimmer. They can barely escape their conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.”

Yet, in far too many cases, we are still requiring very expensive textbooks in our classes. Over the degree program, students are expending thousands of dollars for texts that many sell back to the bookstore for less than half of their original value. Much of the material embedded in the texts is either already available freely online or could be assembled by the instructor from open-access sources. At the same time, many instructors still complain that the text does not precisely fit their needs; they skip chapters and assign additional readings to update the material in the text that is already one or two years out of date before the book hits the students’ desks. Why not just create your own texts and update them as often as is needed?

During the first three semesters in COVID times, awareness of open educational resources (OER) has surged among faculty members. Faculty members who put their classes online through remote learning discovered more fully the range and timeliness of relevant materials that are available online. In a study by Bay View Analytics, sponsored by the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation, it was found that faculty who adopted OER rated their materials superior to the commercial alternatives, and while the percentage of required OER materials did not increase, the percentage of supplemental OER materials did.

Development of OER materials is often supported by colleges and universities as one way to make their classes more affordable. Foundations also provide funding to assist in reimbursing the time and other expenses incurred in development of the materials. This can make a huge difference to students who are living on the edge of poverty while attending college. A Edmonton Journal opinion piece recently made the case for how OER makes college more affordable: “Connor Braun, a student at the University of Calgary, tells of the impact that OER can have. ‘A $200 textbook on its own can be a huge hurdle, but when you’re taking five, maybe six, classes, the cost of textbooks gets ludicrous. For people who are already struggling, free alternatives like OER can make a real difference.’”

Over all, many students seem to do better in classes where the textbooks are open. It may not be that the OER materials are superior -- rather it may be that when the class materials are free, students actually obtain and use them. The research is alarming: “A 2017 survey of 1,000 current students, conducted by Wakefield Research in the United States and Canada, found that nearly 40 percent have avoided purchasing course materials for at least one of their classes. And a widely cited 2014 report called ‘Fixing the Broken Textbook Market’ by the United States Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), was even more damning. It included a survey of 2,000 students, on 150 campuses, and found that 65 percent of students had decided to forgo at least one textbook purchase.” If half the students in the class do not have a textbook, the instructor and students are both put in a disadvantageous position in creating a thriving learning community. Opening free access to all can make a huge difference in the success of the class.

C. Edward Watson, CIO and associate vice president for curricular and pedagogical innovation at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and co-author Barbara Illowsky describe their “epiphany” in discovering the meaningfulness and impact on equity and affordability of using OER. “Yet one of the best-kept secrets for improving student equity and college affordability is within the hands of faculty: using Open Educational Resources (OER) in their courses instead of commercial textbooks and paid electronic materials.”

A host of guides are available to assist faculty members in developing OER materials for their classes. A couple of examples are from the University of Texas and the University of South Carolina. Resources are easy to find, with many libraries providing open creation collections. With more than one and a half billion open works licensed, Creative Commons provides tools to assist in searching for relevant open materials.

Over the past few years, I have been chronicling the new initiatives, programs and activities daily in the UIS OER blog. There are an amazing number of initiatives across the country and around the world that are supporting the opening of educational resources for the sake of affordability and access.

Is it time for you to make a commitment to your students, your institution and your colleagues that you will identify and/or create open educational materials in your classes? I encourage you to do so for the sake of ensuring that your students can afford all of the class materials that you expect them to have for success in your classes.

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