OER helps reduce students’ textbook burden

Written by Lori Robinson

In late 2015, FRCC English Professor Kelli Cole came across a New York Times article about homelessness among struggling college students.

“(H)igh rates of food and housing insecurity among hard-working college students indicate that the nation faces a serious crisis,” Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine M. Broton wrote in the Dec. 4, 2015, op-ed headlined “Hungry, Homeless and in College.” 

In the past two academic years, 17 percent of college students surveyed reported experiencing homelessness over the prior 12 months, according to the national #RealCollegeSurvey, now in its fifth year and administered by Temple University. Statistics for students experiencing food and housing insecurity in the same survey improved slightly this year to 39 percent and 46 percent respectively.

While more than a third of the students who participated in the survey continued to struggle with food security and almost half surveyed faced housing insecurity, “(o)ver the past decade,” the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported in January 2018, “textbook prices (have) risen more than four times the rate of inflation.”

Enter Open Educational Resources — OER

Here at Front Range, Cole and fellow English Professor Michelle Medeiros are in their third semester of using Open Educational Resources in their English composition classes, thanks to a $3,200 grant from the Colorado Department of Higher Education. OER are free and low-cost, high quality texts and instructional materials available on the internet. 

“This is one of the most meaningful projects that I’ve ever been on,” Cole said.

The number of Open Educational Resources has been growing in a national movement over the last several years, recent State of Colorado legislation shows. Colorado joined the OER movement in 2017 when then-Governor John W. Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 17-258 into law. The new law commissioned Colorado’s Open Educational Resources Council to study OER and create access for Colorado students and instructors.

The following year saw House Bill 18-1331 signed into law, by which Colorado dedicated $550,000 to grants for public colleges throughout the state. Cole and Medeiros are among five small group and faculty grantees at state public colleges, alongside 15 institutional grantees and three recipients of professional development and travel grants, the Colorado OER Council showed in its October 2019 report, “Colorado Rises: Transforming Education Practices through Open Educational Resources.” The state OER Council estimates the grants will save Colorado’s public college students $3.4 million in textbook costs by the end of the 2019-2020 academic year.

Depending on whether her students chose to rent or purchase, and whether they got used or new textbooks, before she began using OER as her primary text, Cole said her students would have to spend anywhere from $27.25 to $96 for the class textbook. Likewise, the College Board says the average student budgets more than $1,200 on textbooks and materials each year. 

Cole’s students who use OER pay zero dollars for their texts.

“I so believe in the power of education to transform lives,” Cole said. “And so if I can take away even the slightest barrier for my students, that just feels really wonderful.”

Student Kayla Parrett is a fan of OER. “I tend to enjoy them. I thought the geology book we had last year was very helpful.”

The OER cost Parrett zero dollars. “This semester, the textbook was $100, with no option to rent. Making the switch to OERs would improve the system.”

Parrett said her textbook savings last year went to food and bills. 

Two more students, Donovan Lo and Shqiponja Howison, were pleasantly surprised with an OER for their English Composition class this semester. “I think it’s really helpful,” Lo said. 

If colleges in the United States adopt OER for their core curriculum, students could save $1.5 billion, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group estimated in its 2018 report.  

Howison enjoyed her savings this semester, if only momentarily. “I bought other textbooks,” she said.

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