Open Texts Do More Than Save Money

The use of open access materials doesn’t just make higher education more affordable, but also improves students' academic performance.

Open Textbooks Do More Than Save Money

WHEN PEOPLE BEMOAN the high cost of higher education, they pay greatest attention to rising tuition rates. But the cost of textbooks and other course materials can be just as consequential, especially to low-income students, and some might not have factored the high cost of textbooks into their budgets.

To make ends meet, some choose to go without textbooks at all, which can “negatively [affect] their understanding of the course material, their subsequent performance (i.e., grade) in the class, and potentially their persistence in the discipline,” write Nicholas B. Covard, a lecturer and academic coach at the University of Georgia in Atlanta; C. Edward Watson, chief information officer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities; and Hyojin Park, a doctoral graduate of the University of Georgia now at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.

In a recent paper, Covard, Watson, and Park call for higher education institutions to adopt a greater number of open access resources (OER) to better support underserved students. They define OER as “free, online learning content, software tools, and accumulated digital curricula that are not restricted by copyright license and available to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.” While past impact on students’ finances and ability to stay in school, the co-authors wanted to quantify the effect OER textbooks have on students’ academic performance.

Starting in 2013, the University of Georgia’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) began encouraging faculty to adopt OER, primarily free electronic textbooks developed by Open-Stax, a nonprofit based at Rice University in Houston, Texas. By the end of 2017, an estimated 35,985 UGA students had enrolled in at least one course that used a free textbook, collectively saving an estimated US$3,266,930.

The researchers looked at students’ academic performance between 2010 and 2016 in eight undergraduate courses, including those in American history, physiology, biology, psychology, and sociology. During this time frame, 11,681 students who were enrolled in these courses used standard commercial textbooks, while 10,141 of their peers used OER textbooks. The researchers found that in courses using OER, students achieved 5.5 percent more A grades, 7.73 percent more A- grades, and 1.14 percent more B+ grades, compared to non-OER courses. The use of OER decreased rates at which students received D, F, or W (withdrawal) grades by 2.68 percent.

The researchers also broke out data specific to students who had received U.S. Pell grants, as this group typically comes from underserved communities. Among this group, D, F, and W grades decreased by 4.43 percent. This study did not look at dropout rates, but the co-authors infer that “reducing the number of students who fail would have a positive impact on retention.”

Covard, Watson, and Park call for further study of the impact of OER on student academic performance. They plan to gather more evidence of OER’s educational value and encourage more institutions to adopt OER. “A new opportunity appears to be present,” they write, “for institutions in higher education to consider how to leverage OER to address completion, quality, and affordability challenges” that underserved students so often face.

The Impact of Open Educational Resources on Various Student Success Metrics” appeared July 12, 2018, in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education..