by Abbie Guillen & Jason Barber, staff writers

$1,420. That is how much two-year college students are spending on books and supplies every year on average, according to College Board. That is a jarring number considering community colleges market themselves as an affordable means to getting a higher education. This number can feel overwhelming, but there are professors who are working to make education more accessible here at PPSC with Open Educational Resources (OER).

Many departments across the college have moved to OER because of the benefits to students. But not all departments have. While it may seem like an easy switch from textbooks to OER, it turns out the process is a bit more complicated.

The complication mainly lies in the fact that these OER texts need to be vetted, polished, adjusted, and maintained by the various faculty who are providing these texts. OER platforms, like Openstax certainly exist—wherein professors can find full textbooks already available. The problem lies in making sure the information provided is current and fitting for our particular needs at our school.

It can be messy. But, luckily, we have professors willing to do the work.

The following outlines an interview with English professor, Eric Erickson, who was a major player in switching the English department over to OER:

AG & JB: Who decides whether or not you can use OER for your classes, is it you, is it the department heads, or is it someone else? How do they decide?

EE: For our department, we initially made the decision to use OER in 2018 when it came time for us to select new composition textbooks. As a small committee within our department, we selected some available content and put together a book that felt inclusive of most of the material we might look for in a textbook. Many of us were interested in trying to push back against the rising costs of college that may be prohibitive for some students, particularly textbook costs that are difficult to keep under $100. Initially, I was unfamiliar with OER material, but it became quickly clear that there was no shortage of adequate materials we could use in our classes. In 2018, the school also received a specified grant, of which our department was selected to participate. This put a lot of restrictions on the ways we could use OER material in our course shells, but it did mean that we would be compensated for our time in selecting texts. This process can vary based on leadership in different disciplines and divisions. For our selections, we mainly had to be sure that content was licensed as “SA” or “Share Alike,” which means that the content can be altered by the user in any way they see fit. It also means that new content created should be open for other educators to do the same.

AG & JB: How do you feel about e-books that must be paid for without the option of having an actual textbook? How do you feel about it when they call it a lease, so you don’t even get a book, and also the e-book is removed from your app after a period of time?

EE: There is no question that OER has disrupted the business model for many textbook publishers and privately contracted booksellers (such as Barnes & Noble at PPSC). Leasing electronic content doesn’t make any sense to me. The “lease” is, ostensibly, to cover the costs of licensing the material in the book, but those costs vs. the costs to students to essentially “borrow” a textbook don’t correlate. Textbook publishers and booksellers would like to combat OER with a perception that they, too, are concerned with student-incurred costs, but I’m pretty skeptical about that.

AG & JB: If/when you are able to use OER, what is it like to find one, evaluate it, and then select the best one? Is it a difficult or time consuming process?

EE: In a word, yes. There is no shortage of English subject matter experts, and many are getting into publishing Open access content. The University of Oregon, for instance, has been at the forefront of this for quite some time. For composition courses, I have found that students look to textbooks for verification and legitimacy for the instructor’s lectures, activities, and “rules” for papers. When I’m evaluating OER material, I look for things that can provide critical thinking opportunities for classroom work and helping students develop a portable process for writing assignments across disciplines. For us, the work on maintaining and improving our OER material is time-consuming, and I believe, generally requires the support of leadership, including Instructional Services to make OER material as user-friendly as possible for the instructors and students.

AG & JB: If you would, tell me about the reasons you might choose one or the other and perhaps the reasons other professors have discussed with you about why they choose one or the other.

EE: I assume you mean OER vs. “traditional” textbooks. Cost to student remains the primary reason for adopting or creating OER texts. Our institution has, in face, used data collected by our department to market the benefits of the school and of OER. Highlighting the potential effects on first-generation college students or students from underserved communities belies the fact that post-grant, college leadership has shown little interest in supporting OER work any further. 

The material included in OER texts also tends to promote the values of open-access in general, which is something that I’m passionate about as an instructor. Education, if not separated from market-based decision making, quickly becomes devalued in policy and in practice. Institutions of all kinds find out that cost-effectiveness or profitability become the primary concerns. At the same time, creators deserve to be paid for their work, and the work of essayists, educators, scientists, etc. can seem devalued with an over-obsession with OER materials. As a teacher of rhetoric and information literacy, my primary concern is having quality artifacts of rhetoric and argument that are essential in a composition class. Sometimes, relying on OER can prevent instructors and students from having access to quality work from quality authors. Textbook publishers have the infrastructure to acquire that content, which makes traditional textbooks more appealing to many instructors.

AG & JB: It seems like it has gotten exponentially better in the recent past to find almost any kind of OER for almost any kind of class. I wonder if you have had any experience with trying to find them, and how the information you are trying to convey to your classes in textbooks compared to the information you can find in Open Educational Resources?

EE: Great question. As an instructor and writer, I find OER to have limitless potential. While it may be difficult, from time to time, to find quality OER material, the ability to create and share work through Creative Commons provides educators with an opportunity to enjoy more agency in their own course development and ensuring student access. 

As for the second question, composition courses are skills-based courses, meaning students are encouraged to develop skills that will be useful throughout their educational path and increase their level of consciousness in public communication. For a content-based course (one that requires at least some memorization or application of content), it is important for subject-matter experts to closely scrutinize OER material to make sure it is up-to-date and vetted for accuracy.