Open Up: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

By Ellen Small Davis, Sue Tashjian and Jody Carson

Colleges finding Open Educational Resources offer solution to cost problem …

It was the first day of class at Northern Essex Community College (NECC) and a student in professor Mike Cross’s “Introduction to Organic & Biochemistry” class asked, “So, what about the textbook?” Another student responded, “Didn’t you read the syllabus? There isn’t a textbook. It’s free. It’s online.”

The class erupted in cheers.

Cross’s students learned that instead of a heavy, costly textbook, they would use free Open Educational Resources (OER), thanks to the international movement to make high-quality learning materials available for free and online to faculty and students. For example, OER may include news articles, embedded videos, tests and test banks, and even full textbooks—all for free.

While Cross was one of the first NECC professors to create an OER-based course, he’s not alone. According to Sue Tashjian, coordinator of NECC’s Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) and adjunct faculty member, and Jody Carson, an early childhood education professor and instructional coach in CIT, who lead NECC’s OER initiative, at least 23 NECC professors, teaching more than 35 sections at the college this fall, will use only OER in their classes. Since the first OER-based courses ran in fall 2014, the cumulative textbook savings for NECC students exceeds $450,000.

Massachusetts statewide scaling of OER

Other Massachusetts state schools are following suit. On June 7, Carson and Tashjian hosted the launch of the statewide initiative “Massachusetts Community Colleges Go Open Project” to encourage the use of OER. Nearly 200 advocates attended, including representatives from all 15 Massachusetts community colleges and faculty and staff from five state institutions. Also in attendance were several national OER leaders, who played a critical role in kicking off this initiative by sharing the history and philosophy of OER as well as important research and data around OER.

They included David Wiley, chief academic officer and co-founder of Lumen Learning, a prominent and influential thinker in the world of OER who is credited with developing the concept of open pedagogy; Una Daly from the Open Education Consortium who leads the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources and supports its members who are developing Massive Open Online courses using openly licensed content; Nicole Finkbeiner who developed and manages an institutional partnership program at Rice University’s OpenStax in her role in institutional relations and works with colleges to promote the use of OER; and Jeremy Smith, who works in the library and has a key role in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s highly successful OER initiative which has generated a total savings of over $1.3 million for students.

The initiative, said Carson, is a powerful collaboration with a commitment by each college to participate in a statewide OER council that encourages and supports the use of OER at each campus. The council will pool existing resources into a shared repository and identify select materials that align well with Massachusetts community college courses. The council will seek project proposals from faculty across the state to eliminate traditional publisher textbooks in courses, with priority given to cross-department and cross-campus collaborations. By working together, the council can share developed materials and training and support a much larger variety of courses. This will result in many additional sections of OER-based courses being offered and create much larger textbook savings for Massachusetts community college students.

With the College Board’s College Costs Report from 2015 estimating textbook costs at $1,364 per student, Tashjian and Carson are not surprised there is so much interest in OER textbooks and materials.

Cross, a chemistry professor, is a believer. “I’ve found that there are some amazing free resources available for faculty and students from well-known sources, such as the OpenStax series of books which is a nonprofit organization committed to improving student access to quality learning materials and making higher education more affordable for all. It takes some time and effort to sort through the various books to find (the right) one, but it’s definitely worth the effort. This is especially true in the sciences where textbooks routinely cost $200 to $300.”

A recent blog posting from Dan Kopf on, the San Francisco-based collection of writers, data scientists, engineers and analysts working to spread data-driven information, showed that six out of the top 10 college majors with the most expensive textbooks are STEM related.

Defining OER

The U.S. Department of Education defines OER as “teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or repurposing by others.”

This means educators and students can freely and legally access, reuse and adapt free electronic educational resources. They can customize high-quality course materials to create an interactive experience not available for students using a traditional textbook.


The high price of textbooks was the reason NECC Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs William Heineman launched the Textbook Task Force in 2012. The goal was for administrators, faculty, staff and students to address the rising costs.

In fall 2013, Carson and Tashjian became co-chairs of the Textbook Task Force and developed the Adopt Open Project, an OER initiative offered to NECC faculty in the spring of 2014.

Faculty were encouraged to replace their regular textbooks with OER materials using NECC’s CIT and library staff to research and then implement OER into their courses. Courses developed inside the Adopt Open Project were live and available to students in fall 2014.

In its first semester, the college’s initial investment of $5,000 in Adopt Open Project faculty stipends resulted in $52,000 in textbook savings for students. Currently, NECC has spent $23,000 on the OER initiative, resulting in student savings of more than $450,000.

How OER is changing students’ lives

Wiley cited student survey results from the Florida Virtual Campus, which show there is a direct relationship between textbook costs and student success. OER is still fairly new in the world of higher education and the research is even newer.

  • 60% do not purchase textbook at some point due to cost.
  • 35% of students take fewer courses due to textbook costs.
  • 31% choose not to register for a course due to textbook costs.
  • 14% have dropped a course because they couldn’t afford the book.

In OER courses, students have access to their course materials the first day.

As NECC psychology professor Eldiane Elmeus recalled, “One of my students came up to me three weeks into the semester and said she could not afford to buy the textbook for her math class and was considering dropping the class. That would not happen in my class now because I use open educational resources.”

By reflecting on their teaching and course design through adopting OER, faculty members are designing more effective, more current courses for students.

“I started using OER in my courses to include content that was current and relevant to the course,” said NECC criminal justice professor Scott Joubert. “I have found that students truly like having the current information at their fingertips versus other information that might be two to five years old in commercial textbooks. Students are more engaged with the content and like not having to buy a textbook.”


While cost savings is a clear benefit, the OER movement does have challenges. For example, it places the burden of printing course materials onto the student. Also there is an initial time investment for an instructor to implement OER as the instructor often has to update course syllabi and course shells with new textbook information and many must develop the ancillary materials to support student learning such as test banks, PowerPoints and lecture notes that are typically provided by commercial publishers.

“Adopting an open philosophy typically takes faculty more time than simply selecting a textbook from a publisher. We encourage faculty who are moving to OER course materials to look at their student learning outcomes and select materials that are fitting for their specific course. This personalized process involves curating materials from many sources and adapting or creating materials to meet the student learning outcomes. In most cases, our faculty report being more satisfied with the content of their courses,” noted Carson.

Carson and Tashjian are among those who believe that as the OER movement gains momentum, so will the creative and resourceful ways to address these challenges. They believe OER is the future.

“OER allows students to pay less for more personalized, high-quality learning materials, persist to graduation and finish their programs earlier,” said Tashjian.

This piece was submitted by Ellen Small Davis, a writer at Northern Essex Community College and a former reporter for the Daily News of Newburyport, with contributions from Northern Essex professors Sue Tashjian and Jody Carson.

Related Posts:

Learner-Centered Institutions: The Future of Higher Education

University Unbound! Higher Education in the Age of “Free”



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