Our OER Epiphany: Advocating for Open Educational Resources as Tools for Affordability and Equity
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Our OER Epiphany

Advocating for open educational resources as tools for affordability and equity

By Barbara Illowsky and C. Edward Watson

April 8, 2021

Many staff members and administrators strive to improve equity and affordability at their institutions and ensure all students can achieve their educational goals. At four-year colleges and universities, these efforts often take shape as scholarships or reduced tuition and fees, while in many states, community colleges participate in the College Promise program to provide free tuition and support services. 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.

Institute on Open Educational Resources

AAC&U is launching a year-long, online engagement opportunity this summer to help campus teams develop or enhance efforts to improve student equity and college affordability through open educational resources. Applications are due on April 30, 2021.

OER—which include textbooks, software, and other resources that may be freely used and repurposed by others—can create powerful advocacy opportunities for faculty to support students and student success, regardless of the size and type of institution. But so
far, faculty have been slow to take advantage of these opportunities. While 82 percent of faculty have the autonomy to select their own textbooks and course materials, just 16 percent were “very aware” of OER
in 2019–20. And even though awareness has more than tripled since 2014–15, when only 5 percent of faculty were very aware of OER, adoption still lags far behind. These realities underscore the need for OER advocates at all colleges and universities.

Your campus-based OER initiatives need not be massive, resource-intensive, or exhaustive; however, they do require strategic planning, targeted approaches, collaborative leadership, and goal-oriented advocates. Below, two OER advocates share how low-cost course materials made a difference for their students.

Saving Students Millions at De Anza College

Throughout her thirty years as a professor at De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California, Barbara Illowsky believed that if she was truly committed to student equity, then all of her students needed to have access to course materials by the time classes began. Students often received their financial aid in the second week of classes, meaning that those who could not afford textbooks had to go into debt or start their courses far behind other students. This divided students into two inequitable groups based on their income levels. As a faculty member, the one difference Illowsky was able to make was to ensure that all students—no matter their life circumstances—had access to course content on the first day of class. An additional bonus was that OER do not contribute to student debt.

In the early 1990s, Illowsky and coauthor Susan Dean wrote one of the lowest-cost textbooks on elementary statistics. After internet access became ubiquitous at colleges and universities, Rice University republished the book online as one of the very first open textbooks in 2007. In 2012, the book became a prototype for Rice’s OpenStax platform and is now used at nearly a thousand universities and colleges worldwide.

OpenStax’s free, openly licensed textbooks are developed with the same rigorous authorship and peer-review processes used by for-profit textbook publishers. This has been a game changer, finally addressing the concerns of some faculty—who viewed OER as lower quality than commercial rivals—through industry processes. OpenStax now saves students millions of dollars each year. Indeed, in a single elementary statistics course at De Anza College, the students have saved over $3 million in textbook costs since 2007.

Increasing Impact through High-Enrollment Courses at the University of Georgia

In 2012, soon after joining the University of Georgia (UGA) as director for the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), C. Edward Watson had a similar epiphany. He and his staff recognized that the greatest opportunities to scale up affordability and equity through OER came from instructors using expensive textbooks in large-enrollment classes.

In the summer of 2013, the CTL staff worked with an Introduction to Biology professor to transition her course from a $99 textbook to OpenStax’s free biology textbook. By the end of the 2013–14 academic year, this single OER adoption saved students $200,000, and these savings have multiplied every year that followed without any additional expenditure of CTL resources.

The biology professor—a significant leader in forming on-campus opinions about pedagogy—became a valuable OER advocate. With the proof of concept firmly established, UGA’s CTL worked with two or three new faculty each year to transition their course materials to OER. By the time Watson left UGA in 2017, more than a dozen faculty in large-enrollment courses had transitioned from using expensive textbooks to high-quality OER replacements. In those first four years, collective savings from this small group of faculty were estimated at nearly $4 million for more than forty thousand students, and UGA was recognized as second in OpenStax’s list of ten schools that had served the most students with OER. Just as important, research conducted by Watson and his team found that OER led to higher end-of-course grades and lower D, F, and withdrawal rates, confirming the powerful potential to improve equity outcomes for thousands of students.

As your institution looks to the 2021–22 academic year, what can you, your colleagues, and your institution do to further the goals of student equity and college affordability? How might you launch or accelerate efforts associated with OER? Now is an excellent time to learn more, plan for the future, become an OER advocate, and examine how you and your institution might add OER to your portfolio of student success and equity initiatives.


  • Barbara Illowsky

    Barbara Illowsky

    Barbara Illowsky recently retired from De Anza College after a career of more than thirty years at the college and in other California Community College System roles.

  • C. Edward Watson

    C. Edward Watson

    C. Edward Watson is associate vice president for curricular and pedagogical innovation at AAC&U.