Open Educational Resources cut student costs and increase engagement

Sarah Hare
Sarah Hare is UC Santa Cruz's new open educational resources (OER) librarian. She is meeting with faculty and units across campus to learn about the course materials they use and how they put their curriculum together.

Many students face a financial challenge when it comes to covering the cost of course materials each quarter. This can sometimes prevent them from taking a class or be the reason behind their decision to withdraw from one. To help reduce this financial burden, a growing number of instructors at UC Santa Cruz are using Open Educational Resources (OER).

“It’s an equity issue,” said Sarah Hare, UC Santa Cruz’s new open educational resources librarian. “Students cannot engage in class if they can’t access the text or the homework.” 

Traditional textbooks are often copyrighted in a way that makes sharing difficult and restricts instructors from altering or updating the content. Some publishers also use digital rights management, which limits the amount of time students can access the digital version. When textbooks are digital, they cannot make any of the cost back by reselling them at the end of the term. Some publishing companies also charge a one-time access fee to homework portals that can cost more than $100 a class.  

“They’re paying to do their homework and there’s no way to opt out of that,” Hare explained.

In recent conversations with instructors, they have shared stories with her about students using the free trial of a  homework system the first weeks of a quarter and then dropping the course because they can’t afford the system after the trial ends.

Faculty say there are other reasons traditional course materials sometimes do not fit UC Santa Cruz classes. They are often designed for semesters, do not meet the interdisciplinary approach many instructors take, and are not culturally relevant or responsive to the diversity of UCSC students. 

Open Educational Resources are shared at no cost under a Creative Commons license. While each Creative Commons license has its own stipulations, many OER are only required to be cited. OER includes openly-licensed textbooks, articles, software tools, YouTube videos, and other resources not restricted by traditional copyright. 

“Let's say an instructor at UC Santa Cruz designed their curriculum using OER and then somebody at the University of Michigan who is teaching that same course and struggling to find good course materials, finds the OER,” Hare explained. “They can legally use it and adapt it to their class too.”

Along with reducing student costs, preliminary data shows that replacing traditional course materials with OER improves retention and completion rates and the quality of student learning.These rates improved even more significantly for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education.

For the past decade, Hare, who was the first in her family to graduate from college, has focused on course material affordability, most recently at Indiana University Bloomington where she created a program to support instructors making the transition to OER. 

The Course Material Fellowship program supports faculty in switching from traditional textbooks to more cost-effective alternatives. As part of the program, faculty have access to campus resources, such as technology, copyright, and accessibility support, and receive a stipend for their time and effort. 

The opportunities to help students succeed and instructors improve their teaching drew Hare to the new position at the University Library. 

“Our job is to help instructors navigate the different options available so they can find what’s best for their course,” Hare said. 

She is currently meeting with faculty and units across campus to learn about the course materials they use, how they put their curriculum together, and what experience they have with OER. She is also holding listening sessions with students. 

Alexa Fredstrom, assistant professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz, taught the introductory course Biological Principles for Environmental Sciences for the first time fall quarter 2023. One of the first decisions she had to make was what book to use. 

“I realized very quickly that the book that had been used previously was really expensive so I started looking into alternatives, which led down the OER path.” 

She reached out to the library and the Teaching & Learning Center (TLC) for guidance on inclusive and equitable pedagogy. The TLC assigned a mentor who was a sociology professor to support her during the quarter. 

“I was able to bring the technical knowledge to teach this class and they were able to catch me up on all of these pedagogical skills that I just don't have,” said Fredston. 

She selected a textbook and built her curriculum, picking and choosing from different lesson plans and active learning exercises available as  OER, including two OpenStax books that were developed at Rice University. 

“There were some chapters that didn’t suit the environmental theme of the course or were too in-depth or not in-depth enough,” Fredston explained. “When I encountered those, I would find other resources to teach from. I ended up creating a class that was very close to the learning objectives we set out and to what the major wants these students to learn,” Fredston said. “The teaching evaluations were extremely positive, which was a really nice outcome.”

While OER are widely available for introductory and other lower division courses, Fredston is now thinking about how to translate that to more specialized upper division courses.