OER, Affordability, and Equity in the Classroom

When we speak of affordability in higher education, we often focus on the cost of tuition or room and board.  There’s another cost though, that can have a very real impact on students: the cost of textbooks has risen at 4 times the rate of inflation over the last 10 years (1). Use of required textbooks is fundamental for success in a course, yet for many students these resources are prohibitively expensive.  When students can’t afford a textbook, they may try renting digital versions, using a Library reserve copy, or simply not purchasing the book. It’s easy to predict the impact on student success in a course if half the students can afford their own copy of the required materials on day one, but half cannot.  Inequitable access to materials due to cost means that not all students have equal opportunity to succeed in and persist through college. How then is Wheaton working on levelling the playing field so that all students have the opportunity to be successful? With three little letters: OER.

OER, or Open Educational Resources, are materials that are published and released with licenses that allow others to freely use, distribute, remix, and revise them.  Available in many different subject areas, an OER textbook is low to no cost, and students have perpetual access to the materials compared to traditionally published textbooks that typically have “bundled” online access codes that last for only a semester.

Wheaton’s OER initiative began in Fall 2015, and faculty adoptions of OER materials in place of traditional textbooks have saved students over $220,000 in textbook costs thus far. This work has been driven by the Library, Technology, and Learning Committee, which has long seen the need of supporting faculty in trying innovative pedagogical approaches. Their support includes stipends given to faculty who “adopt” an OER text, or switch from a traditional textbook to an open textbook.  The number of OER adoptions has increased significantly over the last three years: 16.7% of tenured or tenure-track faculty have used OER materials in one or more of their courses. There are several departments at Wheaton that use OER exclusively in their intro courses, including Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics. Additionally, the Business and Management program now uses OER in almost all of their courses.  Wheaton has also begun a strategic partnership with panOpen, an online platform for OER, and will begin hosting materials on this site in the spring 2019 semester.  

This work by faculty to remove financial barriers in the classroom makes higher education more accessible and attainable for our students.  We know from studies that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts student access to required materials and their ability to be academically successful. For example, in the 2016 Florida Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey, 67% of students did not purchase the required textbook for a course due to cost. Beyond having a significant financial impact on students, this work to transform courses to utilize low or no cost materials is a matter of equity in the classroom.  OER Scholars Robin DeRosa and Rajiv Jhangiani spoke about their work saying “we aren’t just saving a student money on textbooks… we are directly impacting that student’s ability to attend, succeed in, and graduate from college” (3).

Adoption of OER allows us to enact tangible solutions to issues we are all grappling with.  OER use ensures that education and knowledge are not restricted to the elite and that within the classroom students are given equal opportunity to be successful, regardless of wealth or financial ability, something that is very much in keeping with Wheaton’s role in providing a transformative educational experience for our students.

-Lauren Slingluff, Associate Dean of Library Services