Open Education Resources provide cheaper textbook alternative

GVL/Luke Holmes
Molly Labeff studies for finals in the Mary Idema Pew Library Dec. 11.

GVL/Luke Holmes Molly Labeff studies for finals in the Mary Idema Pew Library Dec. 11.

Hannah Lentz

As many students know from recent purchases, textbook costs have been rising—an 82 percent increase in the last decade, according to one report by U.S. News. A new milestone has been established – college students are now officially in an era of the$400 new textbook and the $300 used textbook.

While many individuals at Grand Valley State University have been interested and involved in the Open Education Resources (OER) Initiative for years, there hasn’t been much campus-wide discussion of OER until recently. The initiative came together last year as an ongoing conversation about how GVSU can support the creation and use of OER, in order to make education more accessible, more affordable, and more flexible.

Ultimately, the OER is working to provide free educational literature when possible to help eliminate and reduce the ever-rising price of textbooks for college students.

Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator for GVSU’s libraries, has helped to lead the OER initiative at GVSU. He coordinated meetings of a working group which currently includes participants from University Libraries, the Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence, the Faculty Teaching and Learning Center, and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team.

“Textbooks and other course materials designed to be freely used, shared, and customized have become an increasingly popular topic in higher education in recent years,” Ruen said. “The rising cost of commercial textbooks makes it difficult for students to afford the information they need, and limits the ability of instructors to customize their courses, so faculty, university administrators, and government officials are exploring alternatives.”

The OER initiative at GVSU looks to expand what services campus already provides and resources that can help faculty members create and use OER. Previously, these two elements had not been linked together.

For example, sabbatical and grant funding could give a faculty member the time and resources necessary to develop an open textbook, librarians can help instructors find high-quality OER for their courses, and workshops can help faculty integrate OER into online or classroom activities.

“OER help make education more affordable, but also help make education more flexible,” Reun said. “OER allow instructors to pick and choose, borrowing and adapting pieces they like and adding their own content, without needing to worry about the cost to students, and without having to ask, and sometimes pay, for permission to reuse a great chapter, diagram, or lesson.”

OER doesn’t just mean “anything that’s free to students,” Ruen said. Many faculty at GVSU, for example, assign readings from e-books and journal articles in the libraries’ collections, which are free to students—but these cost GVSU a significant amount of money, may have limitations on how they can be used, and cannot be modified or customized by instructors.

OER, on the other hand, can be freely retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed—the “5 Rs” of OER—so an instructor can freely customize a chapter for a specific class, a student can keep referring to an open textbook long after graduation, and anyone can share those OER with the rest of the world.

“Education is about sharing knowledge, and we are excited to see the potential of OER across the university to increase access and reduce costs,” said Eric Kunnen, associate director of the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team. “We believe that in collaborating together we can support faculty and students in their use of open educational resources across the institution”

The OER team is currently learning from large initiatives already in progress, such as the Maricopa Millions OER Project, which is targeting to save students $5 million over five years in the Maricopa (Arizona) Community College system.

“Sharing knowledge with people who want to learn is what higher education is all about,” Ruen said. “Most academics didn’t choose our career paths because of the money, but because we wanted to help other people learn new things about the world we live in. OER allow us to put more educational materials in the hands of more people around the world.”

Before this semester started, GVSU’s open textbooks have been downloaded over 111,000 times by scholars and students on every continent except Antarctica.

The libraries at GVSU currently provide access to 10 open textbooks produced by faculty members through ScholarWorks@GVSU, GVSU’s open-access repository. Students assigned these texts can access them through the ScholarWorks website (, through links in a syllabus or through the author’s own web pages.

There are also hundreds of open textbooks and open course materials available online, produced by faculty and staff authors at other institutions and made available for use, reuse, and adaptation by any instructor. Many of these are high quality, designed specifically for university courses and are frequently peer-reviewed. University Libraries has developed an online guide to help GVSU faculty members find some of these high-quality OER which could be suitable for their courses (

“OER allow us to put more educational materials in the hands of more people around the world,” Ruen said. “That’s tremendously fulfilling to see.”