Module 1: The What and Why of OER

What are Open Educational Resources | Why Does Open Education Matter | OER vs ZTC | Assignment & Discussion

Why does Open Education Matter?

Textbook Cost

When it comes to the “why” of open education, the answer always comes back to students, to the sad fact that at the beginning of each semester students must debate whether to purchase their assigned course materials or forego the purchase and attempt to get through the semester without them.

According to the College Board, the average undergraduate student should budget between $1,200 and $1,420 for textbooks and supplies during the 2018 academic year. Since then, with issues like inflation and increased economic burdens during the COVID-19 pandemic, purchasing textbooks has only become more difficult for students and their families. A recent article compiling statistics on average costs for students notes,  "According to Bureau of Labor statistics, prices for college textbooks increased by 7% between 2020 and 2023. That's faster than tuition inflation and it's enough to make a dent in any college student's budget."  

Often students forego purchasing required materials and get by with older editions, pirated downloads that may expose their computers to viruses or without the textbooks at all. The same article reports, "In a 2022 survey of nearly 12,000 students, the National Association of College Stores (NCES) found that 1 in 4 students did not obtain at least one of their course materials."

For many students and families already struggling to afford a college degree, that is simply too costly – and results in more debt, working longer hours, or, most critically, making choices that undermine academic success.

Textbook Market

The textbook market does not work like a normal consumer market. Students are effectively a “captive market” because they are required to purchase whatever materials they have been assigned, regardless of whether they think the price is fair or not. Professors make purchasing decisions on behalf of students, and they may not be as price-sensitive or may not have full information about the price. As a result, textbook publishers are in a position of disproportionate power to set prices higher than they could normally get away with. 

The textbook market is also broken because there is a lack of competition. Three major publishers controlled more than 80% of the $3.2 billion textbook market according to 2018 data. While the growth of OER has started to offer some measure of competition, particularly in high-enrollment courses, major companies do not face serious competition on price.  

Benefits of OER

Open education promotes equity in higher education.  The growing cost of higher education, including significant increases in the cost of learning materials, disadvantages students who are in financial need or are part of traditionally underserved groups. A recent study at the University of Georgia found that while using OER improved end-of-course grades and decreased DFW (D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades) for all students, these improvements were greater for Pell Grant recipients, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education.

OER benefits faculty as well. Faculty are not limited by or tethered to the chapters of a textbook. OER gives faculty the freedom to revise, repurpose, or reuse openly-licensed materials.  Faculty can craft together chapters and information from multiple sources to meet their learning objectives as well as revise OER with current research to provide the most recent information.  In addition, faculty and students can work together to co-create assignments and materials. Students can learn in ways that are meaningful and personalized.


This module was created by Ching-Jung Chen. Portions of the content were adapted from: