The Hidden Costs of Open Educational Resources

While certainly not opposed to saving students money, Stuart Barbier questions the assumption that free or low-cost textbooks are a better choice for students simply for that reason.

October 19, 2021
 
 
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In this academic year’s welcome email sent to full-time and part-time faculty at Delta College, Reva Curry, vice president of instruction and learning services, indicated that the college would continue to “increase development and implementation of free and low-cost textbooks to reduce student costs as guided by the OER [open educational resources] Committee.”

Similarly, the college’s previous president, Jean Goodnow, indicated in her “information sharing” at last May’s Board of Trustees meeting that OER options are “a great opportunity for our students to save money on textbooks because they can access resources that [are] free and required by our faculty.” She cited the following statistics:

  • Since fall 2016, Delta students have saved a total of $757,200.
  • As many as 7,683 students have taken a course using an OER textbook.
  • We currently have a total of 57 faculty members that are using OER.
  • All but one of the classes offered to dual-enrolled students have at least one section using an OER textbook.
  • Faculty in nursing, economics, management, communications and literature are exploring OER.
  • Eleven community colleges have saved more than Delta has (16 are below us), and eight of those 11 passed the million-dollar mark on savings for students.

And she expressed her “appreciation for all of the faculty members who have moved in this direction because it does truly save money for our students.”

In fact, whenever I read an administrative communication or attend an OER event such as the statewide summit, the emphasis is on saving students money -- something I am certainly not opposed to. But I am very opposed to the assumption that free or low-cost textbooks are a better choice for student success simply for that reason.

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While cost is a consideration, it should not be the driving factor for the decision of what type of textbook material to use. Rather, the driving factor should be quality and suitability for meeting the course’s outcomes and objectives and best serving our students’ learning needs.

What comes to mind is the clichéd old saw that you get what you pay for. I’ve seen this turn out to be true in several life circumstances. In the case of OER, much more must go into students’ decisions about what classes to take beyond the cost of the textbooks.

Quality materials take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to develop. Besides the glaring and ongoing inequity issue of shifting educational costs from students to instructors, who often develop these materials without compensation, highlighting cost savings also ignores the tradition of peer review -- a concept integral to scholarship in all disciplines and something not all OER materials go through.

I will admit that because of the OER movement, I carefully reviewed the textbooks I was using in my composition classrooms. I searched the many databases I learned about during my first OER conference for material that presented rhetoric and composition in the way I felt best helped students succeed. But I failed to find anything close to what I was using.

Turning instead to the publishing houses, I have found a peer-reviewed textbook that presented rhetoric and composition in the way I feel best meets my students’ needs at half the cost of my previous textbooks. Besides presenting rhetoric and composition in an especially effective way for students to understand, the textbook includes current essays that I wouldn’t have access to due to copyright issues. It also saves me enormous time I can instead spend directly helping my students with the coursework.

To help with cost, I use the same text in my two college composition courses, so students enrolled in both can buy just the one book. Also, instead of buying the textbook itself, students can purchase an online version directly from the publisher for less than $40. I share with my students all the purchase/rental options in an email a few weeks before classes begin as well as through links in my syllabus.

Perhaps most important, the textbook’s three authors are considerably experienced and well credentialed. As the textbook’s website explains, one directed their institution’s writing programs for 28 years, designed its writing-across-the-curriculum program and introduction to college writing workshop, and received the Trustees’ Award for Faculty Excellence. The second directed several writing programs and the Ph.D. program in rhetoric, composition and linguistics at their university, and they received the alumni association’s faculty teaching award. The third worked for more than 30 years on college and high school English textbooks. The website also lists 74 teacher reviewers, including community college teachers. How am I supposed to top all that?

The lead author emphasizes his desire for student success within the textbook: “Student success is now on everyone’s mind. As a teacher, I want my students to succeed, and first-year writing courses offer one of the best opportunities to help them develop the skills and habits of mind they need to succeed, whatever their goals may be.”

Bravo to the teachers who create their own materials that lead to student success. However, I’m quite pleased with my own students’ success -- which was brought about by my choosing proven, peer-reviewed materials. (The book also comes with many instructor resources.) To risk a second cliché: Why reinvent the wheel?

In response to Vice President Curry’s email, I shared these thoughts with my colleagues and my view that Delta’s tradition of faculty members choosing the best materials for their classes should continue, whether those materials are professionally published or instructor created. I ended that response with the idea that, while cost is a factor, the tagline “One of America’s Cheapest Community Colleges” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the tagline “One of America’s Leading Community Colleges,” which is broadcast often on the college’s public radio station.

In short, I’d like to see arguments supporting OER go beyond cost savings and address quality much more than they have. They should also acknowledge the often-uncompensated labor used to create such resources. For now, it’s clear to me that while OER have their benefits, they are certainly no panacea.

Bio

Stuart Barbier is professor of English at Delta College in Michigan.

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