The Too Often Hidden Cost of OER

Share |


A group of community colleges recently announced an initiative to develop or restructure some associate degree programs to use open educational resources (OER) in place of traditional textbooks. In part, the initiative is intended to address college affordability by reducing or eliminating the cost of instructional materials for students.

In announcing this new initiative, the organization touted that the instructional materials would be free but seemed to gloss over the cost to develop and implement these OER and programs. In fact, it will initially cost $9.8 million. This tab will be picked up by a handful of philanthropic organizations directing the initiative, but one has to consider what will happen to these materials and programs when the money is gone. Will governmental entities suddenly pick up the cost to update the materials on a regular basis? Will institutions require their faculty to invest their own time in researching, reviewing, or sourcing these OER in addition to their primary instructional and advising duties?

As the trade association for digital content and software developers in K-12 and higher education, SIIA supports local level decisions by institutions and professors to select or develop the materials that best fit r their programs and courses – whether they are OER or proprietary, digital or print. Many institutional service providers in fact offer content management systems that incorporate OER and proprietary materials to help institutions and students more easily access and find the best materials for them.

However, when deciding the types of instructional materials to adopt, it is vital that institutions, instructors, and policymakers consider the wide range of core and value-added elements in any material being introduced into the classroom to find the best match for their needs. While price is a factor, it is not the only factor in the value and quality of an instructional material.

1.      Digital or print

Increasingly, schools are choosing to adopt digital materials to replace their traditional print textbooks and many offer both print and digital versions of materials. Often, OER is misconstrued as always being digital with proprietary materials always in print. In fact, OER are available in both print and digital form – the latter often being simple PDF files online. Proprietary content developers have been creating digital alternatives to their print materials as well as digital materials for years.

2.      Research-based

Any material should be based on sound research and source materials. Materials available under an open license must be carefully inspected to ensure the original author or subsequent authors are experts in their given field and are applying accepted research principles in their work. Proprietary content developers spend millions of dollars annually on research and fact checking, and are held accountable for accuracy.

3.      Standards alignment (for K-12)

While many states have adopted the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts, many have tweaked the standards to meet their own state specific needs. Outside of English and math, state standards vary widely. Material developed for Kansas may not be aligned with required Texas state standards.

4.      Accessibility

Students with disabilities often need certain accommodations to access materials. For example, PDF materials and materials in certain file formats are not always able to be converted for use by screen readers or translated into braille for students with visual impairments.

5.      Refresh rate

One of the promises of digital materials is regular updates to keep material accurate and relevant. This requires a financial and time commitment by either the author, publisher, or school/teacher to annually or periodically update materials.

6.      Professional development

In the transition to digital materials, teachers and administrators need professional development to learn how to effectively integrate these materials into their daily instruction. For OER, teachers also need instruction on how to source and verify the authenticity of materials.

While OER may have zero acquisition cost, there are expenses in implementing and maintaining over time, including costs for professional development, regular updates and alignment with standards. So, although cost is a critical consideration in choosing instructional materials, measures of value and quality are too important to be omitted from the selection process for instructional materials.