By Dr. Christopher Nellum and Ryan Erickson-Kulas


Higher education is undergoing a sudden and dramatic shift as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring, schools shut down in-person classes and moved to a virtual learning environment with the thinking, or at least the hope, that there would be a return to normalcy by fall. Now, it’s becoming clear many colleges and universities will continue providing distance learning for the foreseeable future and educators must rapidly adapt to this new reality. Since higher ed is undergoing profound disruption, now is the time for faculty to adopt open textbooks that will save students money, narrow opportunity gaps that disadvantage students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and make for engaging lessons, even at a distance. 

The ever-increasing cost of higher education has been a topic of national discussion for the better part of the millennium as indirect or “non tuition” costs, not just tuition and fees, keep pushing the cost of attendance higher. Some of these non tuition costs include textbooks, transportation, housing, childcare, and food, which can wreak havoc on the budgets of students from lower and moderate-income families, and present financial shortfalls that financial aid fails to cover. 

A survey by U.S. Public Interest Research Group of 4,000 students across 83 institutions this past June found that 25% of respondents reported needing to work extra hours to afford course materials, 19% have made decisions on which classes to take based on materials costs, and 11% report skipping meals due to materials costs. And while some students borrow textbooks from the library or buy them used from the secondary market, many times they must still purchase the accompanying digital access codes in order to submit homework assignments and tests online. These days COVID-19 creates additional barriers as only some institutions have figured out how to safely facilitate access to libraries.

Unaffordable textbooks and financial emergencies, especially in this time of economic upheaval, can force students to withdraw from college – and many may never go back. But college and university faculty members are uniquely positioned to relieve some of the financial burden their students are experiencing by integrating open education resources (OER) into their courses. OER are teaching and learning resources that reside in the public domain or that have been released with an intellectual property license that allows their free use and often, repurposing, and continuous improvement. By migrating away from costly, traditional publishers to these free, open textbooks, instructors can play an outsized role in keeping students enrolled, and help them achieve academic and career success.  

A survey of California students conducted by The Education Trust–West, through a partnership with the Michelson 20MM Foundation, found that students really want OER. 91% of CA students and 91% CA students of color feel that online, no-cost textbooks would be helpful, but only 20% report that their schools are providing these materials. This is a lost opportunity for institutions as a 2018 published case study conducted at the University of Georgia examining eight undergraduate courses that switched from commercial to OpenStax textbooks revealed that adopting open materials not only saved student money but also significantly boosted students’ grades and helped to address equity gaps. In overall GPA, there was a 6.9% increase for non-Pell recipients and an 11% increase for Pell recipients. Similarly, White students had a 7.1% increase in average grade, while students of color in the study showed a 13.1% increase – narrowing the stubborn gap that has long existed between students of color and their White peers. 

Anecdotally, students report positive experiences in using open education resources in their classes. “OER prevented me from taking an additional year to graduate and from digging my student debt grave deeper,” says Natalie Miller who graduated in 2019 with a degree in computer science from Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. “OER has been the main resource that helped me to survive financially while in college and gave me a chance to succeed financially after college. With the major I was in, OER cut my cost of education in half because the materials the professors previously used were limited and top dollar.”

The benefits of OER extend to professors as well. Open textbooks are editable so that instructors can adapt lessons and examples to be more culturally reflective of their students, rather than having an author’s materials and perspective drive lectures. By creating more tailored, more relevant lessons, instructors can increase student engagement with the materials, which is particularly useful in a virtual setting as distance learning can make holding students’ attention challenging. 

OER advocates are doing heroic work in shaping policy decisions establishing OER as a long-term, scalable solution to the challenges of college affordability and student inequity. 20 California State University (CSU) locations have adopted Faculty and Academic Senate resolutions saying they’ll support zero or low-cost textbook efforts on their campuses. The Governor’s latest budget proposed $10 million for California Community Colleges to create more Zero‑Textbook‑Cost Degrees. These pathways leverage no cost, open materials so that students never have to spend a dime on textbooks while obtaining their degree. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted lawmaker’s priorities and OER opportunities may go unfunded at a time when these materials are needed most. Regardless, OER proponents will continue championing bills and policies at the state level in support of open textbooks. 

Whether it’s next year or the year after that, the pandemic will end and students will return to in-person learning. But the classrooms they enter may forever change as professors eschew expensive, commercial textbooks for dynamic, free open learning materials. Now, during this era of disruption, is time for instructors to adopt OER and usher in the future of education. 

If you’re a professor looking to bring open textbooks into your classroom, OER Commons is a good place to start. The site is a repository to find, store, remix, collaborate and share OER. There’s also OpenStax which offers free, flexible, open-source and peer-reviewed textbooks that students love and educators trust. The list of OER organizations and initiatives promoting and facilitating open materials adoption is constantly growing. OER Commons, OpenStax, ASCCC OER Initiative, CSU Affordable Learning Solutions, and Community College Consortium for OER are all helping institutions and instructors transition to OER. If you would like to learn more about advocating for or adopting OER in your classroom please contact Ryan Erickson-Kulas, program officer at the Michelson 20MM Foundation, at