Archive | April, 2016

Making the Switch to Affordable Course Content

23 Apr This drawing captures in real-time a presenter's key points regarding Open Educational Resources, made as part of a forum on Open Textbooks.

Open Educational Resources

The Open Educational Resources Movement (OER) has been gaining momentum since UNESCO held a forum in 2002 to explore strategies for freely offering digital educational content to anyone in the world who had the technological means to access it. Since then, universities from around the world have begun open courseware initiatives, making high-quality educational materials available on the web. Organizations such as the OER Commons, OpenStax, and MERLOT have evolved into portals for promoting, locating, and sharing these materials. For-profit institutions have initiated free “open universities” to reach populations not served by traditional higher education; for a prominent example, see the OpenLearn portal sponsored by the UK’s Open University. A recent and visible manifestation of the open education movement is the emergence (and hype) surrounding the scores of MOOCs that have been developed in the last few years and offered by universities across the world. It’s important when discussing MOOCs and OER resources to provide some context, however: while MOOCs are free to learners, most MOOC content is not openly licensed and thus not usable in the way OER resources are, meaning that true OER materials are more flexible and (some would argue) more revolutionary.

The beginning of the OER movement can be traced to a series of events occurring in the mid- to late- 1990s: In 1998 David Wiley invented the term “open content,” in 2001 Larry Lessig founded the Creative Commons, and in that same year MIT decided to make course materials freely available to the public via the web. The MIT OpenCourseWare initiative was the result of a committee convened by MIT’s Provost in 1999 to explore online learning opportunities and how MIT might capitalize on them. Characterizing the online marketplace as highly competitive, complicated to enter, at odds with MITs traditional strengths, and unlikely to make money, the committee recommended that MIT give away all its course materials by putting them on the web. According to Charles Vest, MIT’s president at the time, “I immediately grasped the elegance of this idea, as well as its consistency with MIT’s history and values”

At the time, the OER movement was gaining momentum and proving that freely available online books, journals, and software applications were practical and advantageous. As Vest saw it, at the heart of the OER movement was a belief in the value of freely shared intellectual content—the belief that knowledge made accessible has a democratizing and beneficial effect on global society, a goal that was fully in line with MIT’s stated educational mission. Certainly, the push to provide affordable course materials to students aligns with the overall goals of the Open Educational Resources movement to provide free or low cost educational materials and opportunities to learners.

Now 15 years later, the need for affordable content is increasingly clear. As tuition has risen, so have the cost of textbooks and materials: Students spent nearly $1300 during the 2015-2016 academic year for texts according to the College Board. Facing these costs, students have responded in creative ways: Renting and sharing books, buying older editions, or not buying the textbook at all. None of these economic choices is particularly effective in supporting learning. This is where affordable content comes in with its great potential to positively impact the teaching and learning environment on campuses.

Affordable Content in a University Context

There are several options for accessing affordable course content. At UMinnesota, as at many academic libraries, an instructor’s first stop will be with subject-matter librarians who can help instructors understand the differences among them and choose which is right based on instructors’ particular situations. The following sections point to sites that provide access to open educational resources and affordable course content, and serve as an overview of open educational resources instructors might investigate – on their own, and/or before talking to local, subject-matter librarians.

OER/Open Textbooks

Open Educational Resources and open textbooks are the most familiar and low cost options available today. Openly licensed content is freely available to students, and faculty can modify it depending on the license. Such materials run the gamut from topical modules and open textbooks to a wide variety of learning objects. Given the wealth of information available, searching these resources can be daunting. Don’t hesitate to contact your own local or subject-specific librarians to help you more easily sift through these resources.

  • MERLOT ( Comprised of materials developed by educators, MERLOT is a curated collection of links to free and open teaching, learning, and faculty development resources.
  • OpenStax ( OpenStax provides authors and learners a space where they can create, find, and adapt educational materials including courses and peer-reviewed textbooks.
  • OER Commons ( OER Commons has links to full courses, lessons, simulations, textbooks, lesson plans, and more.
  • Open Education Consortium ( A global network of higher education institutions and organizations providing access to open materials for faculty and students.
  • Open Textbook Library ( The Open Textbook Library provides access to a select set of approximately 200 textbooks and includes peer review of some texts to support faculty hoping to adopt open textbooks in their courses.

Library-Licensed Content/Library Support

While open educational materials and open textbooks are the most familiar options for making the shift to affordable content, other choices exist. Library-licensed content can be considered for use in the classroom. Libraries have large holdings of print and online materials that can be combined to create a customized course packet that serves in place of a traditional textbook. In many cases, open content, faculty-created content, and library-licensed content can be combined to create a hybrid course text.

These materials can be integrated into a course Moodle, Canvas, or other LMS site, or linked to from an external page created by library staff. The University of Minnesota Libraries support instructors who wish to use and create affordable content through individual consultations, focused on locating content, copyright issues and/or assistance publishing faculty-created open content. The Libraries also provide resources to develop the student-facing pages for course readings that can be integrated into Moodle and hosted in the UMN library e-reserve system. Finally, the Partnership For Affordable Content grant program is a recent effort to support faculty who wish to make affordable content available to more students at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

Regardless of grant funding, however, all instructors at the U of MN have access to library services including subject matter, copyright, and eLearning librarians, as well as staff who can research and secure copyright permissions, and help instructors integrate their affordable content into their courses in a way that is easy for students to access.

My Affordable Content Experiment

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about affordable content because I’m in the process of transitioning my graduate-level “Teaching in Higher Education” course away from an expensive textbook to a more affordable option. The benefits for the students seem obvious: low- or no-cost readings that are as easily accessible (via our Moodle site) as opening a print book would be. The value for me—and for my pedagogy—might be less immediately apparent, but is there nonetheless.

“Teaching in Higher Education” is a multi-section course taught by a team of five instructors. We share the same course goals and topics, but our readings and approaches differ. I see the creation of an affordable course packet as an opportunity to open a dialog with my colleagues about the course—what we value in it, how we each approach different topics, and where the points of agreement and disagreement are. The course readings have the potential to be a professional development opportunity for us—a focal point for staff meetings and discussions—that might ultimately improve the curriculum.   One outcome of these discussions would be a shared collection of articles, chapters, and other digital materials that we can all draw from as we prepare to build our own unique course packets in preparation for teaching our sections.   The readings, then, would be the starting point for discussion among the faculty, in the same way that they would be for the students.

The creation of affordable readings also offers a unique opportunity within the context of my course, since its focus is teaching theory and methods in higher education. Not only do I plan to introduce affordable content as a topic during the course, but I can also see the reading packet itself being the focus of a class activity tied to course design decisions or the construction of a syllabus. What choices does one make when choosing a text? What is the status of the text in a course? Does it represent knowledge that students must master or is it a tool for students to use to create their own knowledge? Answers to these questions have the potential to open up mostly tacit assumptions about the status of knowledge (and its transmission) in a discipline, as well as the roles of students and teachers in that compact. This is precisely the thing that we try to get the students in our courses to consider.

An affordable course packet can foreground some of the larger questions that I hope to raise in the course, while at the same time providing an opportunity for class activities. Perhaps I will develop an assignment where students critique my reading choices for a particular day and propose others that they would use instead, leveraging the contrast between them as a way to discuss the myriad approaches one might take to teaching undergraduates. I haven’t gotten that far yet (in fact, I’m just in the early stages of planning the readings), but I’m excited about the potential for our readings not just to be static artifacts that students complete as pre-class assignments but as objects of critique that can open up new ways of thinking about who we are as instructors, what we value, and the assumptions that drive the decisions we make in the classroom.


Special thanks to Kristi Jensen, University of Minnesota Libraries, for input on this article.

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