How to create better course materials and give them away for free
by Carol Connare and Theresa Dooley
The majority of college students cannot afford the basic materials they need for their courses. In the fall of 2020, 65 percent of students skipped buying a textbook due to cost, even though 90 percent reported that they worried it would negatively impact their grade.
What’s the deal?
From the 1970s through the mid-2010s, textbook prices increased at three times the rate of inflation. While this steep curve has leveled off in the past few years, the cost of textbooks and other required course materials remains out of reach for many students. Open textbooks—free materials written and released under an open license—provide an opportunity to help students save money and create pressure for more affordable options to exist in the marketplace.
Since 2011, the Libraries have championed open textbooks and led the campus in their adoption, awarding Open Education Initiative grants annually to faculty creating their own open educational resources, or OERs. Studies show that every dollar invested in these grants saves students at least ten times that amount. According to Open Education Librarian Theresa Dooley, “There are major benefits to using open materials in teaching, including increasing affordability and accessibility and creating a sense of belonging on campus. But converting a course to open is often a heavy lift for faculty, who are already stretched thin.” Dooley continues, “The care and expertise that go into finding, adopting, remixing, and creating these materials are indicative of the innovation that’s transforming higher education today. The OEI is a way for us to support and incentivize that extra work by faculty.”
Here are a few examples of how it works.
The Libraries pay about nine million dollars annually to license tools, databases, and other materials for every current campus user; unfortunately, that licensing agreement means students lose access to these valuable resources when they graduate. For example, in courses such as Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) Programming; Cartography and Geovisualization; Geocomputation; and Spatial Decision Making and Support, most classes are currently taught with ArcGIS, expensive proprietary software that is built into the students’ cost through fees. Continued access after graduation becomes prohibitively expensive, so most can no longer use resources they were educated with. To address this situation, professor Seda Salap-Ayca was awarded $5,000 for converting materials into open-source modules accessible to students after they graduate.
Enrollment: 83 students.
The Bottom Line: Annual savings of $46,500; savings per student: more than $500 in software costs and tools they can access whenever they need them, forever.
Finding out we have to pay an extra few hundred dollars each year on top of tuition was very surprising and disappointing, especially following the excitement of being accepted into a college. For me and some of my friends, it’s gotten to the point of ‘which resources can we afford right now?’ There are a lot of initiatives pushing for more affordable tuition, but not as many pushing for affordable textbooks. The OEI is just one of the many steps that need to be taken to make education more affordable. Although educators may not have much time to dedicate to making OERs, the impact they have on the lives of students is unimaginable. Paying large amounts in tuition is a burden in and of itself; being forced to pay for materials on top of that makes education that much less accessible to those who don’t have the luxury of easily accessible funds.”– Megan Joyce ’26
Physics for Everyone
Physics lecturer Heath Hatch was awarded $10,000 to adapt an open physics textbook and to create accompanying assignment banks that other educators will be able to use and adapt, including translating it into another language, if they wish. Hatch is already planning on creating a new textbook for another physics class.
Enrollment: 1,000 per year.
The Bottom Line: Annual savings of $466,140; savings per student: $233.
Teaching Teachers about OER
Jacqueline Castledine, University Without Walls department head, saw an opportunity to introduce open educational practices among UWW faculty who frequently serve low-income, single parents who are often the first in their families to attend college. They proposed to fully transition the “Experiential Reflections of Leadership” to OER. Armed with a $5,000 grant, Castledine began by finding materials and using them as additional resources and adding them into the learning management system. Their long-term goal is to compile them into an open book on the Pressbooks platform, and to expand OER use to other UWW classes.
Enrollment: 50 students per year.
The Bottom Line: Annual savings of $13,000; savings per student: more than $250.
Traditional Spanish curriculums often exclude localized dialects and leave students from Spanish-speaking households in doubt of their language abilities. Professor Meghan Armstrong-Abrami was awarded $6,000 to create a Spanish textbook for Massachusetts Heritage Speakers (students who speak Spanish at home). Armstrong-Abrami’s proposal includes collaborative partnerships with Springfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Chicopee high schools, as well as with Holyoke Community College, which received the Remixing Open Textbooks Through an Equity Lens from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.
Enrollment: 30 students per year.
The Bottom Line: Annual savings of $9,500; savings per student: more than $300.
My Open Educational Resources Journey
“Since 2019, I’ve been teaching hybrid GIS courses at UMass Amherst. But nothing prepared me for the challenges of fall 2020 when everything went completely remote. It was a terrifying time, especially since students lacked access to the entire campus, which includes the software, hardware, and libraries needed for the course. I spent the summer of 2020 grappling with ideas on how to help my students overcome these obstacles.
It was then that I realized the need for a long-term solution to this problem and began exploring Open Educational Resources (OER) opportunities. Students need access to accessible and open-source material throughout the semester, beyond the limitations of traditional textbooks. While students aren’t directly paying for the software, learning management systems, or tools we provide, these resources are all part of the cost of their education.
To begin this journey, I revamped one of my existing courses—Spatial Decision Making and Support—and converted it into modules that are accessible and free for our students. This new content will be updated regularly and available as interactive lecture notes, videos, code breaks, and discussion boards on a publicly accessible repository. All the tools will be platform-independent, which means they can be run on any operating system. The topic videos will be uploaded to YouTube and linked to the main course web page, and their captions will be edited and embedded in the videos, while transcripts will be provided for screen-readers. Programming examples will be retrieved from GitHub course repositories.
This is just the first step in a much bigger journey. I’m grateful for OER, which has been a game-changer for me. It has enabled me to pursue a direction that I’ve always been eager to explore but never had the chance to. And it’s not just me—my students, Catherine Shea ’22, ’26PhD, and Sophia Gendreau ’22, ’26PhD, are also contributing to this project, editing videos, adding image alt text (text read aloud by screen readers and indexed by search engines, and displayed on a page if an image fails to load) and working on discussion notes. I couldn’t be prouder of their efforts.
This journey of creating accessible and open-source material has been challenging, but it has also been incredibly rewarding. I’m excited to see where this journey takes us, and I’m grateful for the support of my students and the OER community. Together, we can make education more accessible and equitable for everyone.”
–Seda Şalap-Ayça, PhD, Department of Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences University of Massachusetts Amherst at Mount Ida, Newton, Massachusetts
Extra! Extra! Get Your Free Information Here!
Open Textbook Library was started so that faculty could find open textbooks in one place. It is a comprehensive referring tool that points to open textbooks by a variety of authors and publishers.
MERLOT Collection provides access to curated online learning and support materials and content creation tools, led by an international community of educators, learners, and researchers. It is made up of over 91,000 materials in 22 different material type categories. You can browse or search the learning materials.
Mason OER Metafinder (MOM) is a real-time federated search for OER content.
Openly Available Sources Integrated Search (OASIS) is a search tool that aims to make the discovery of open content easier. OASIS currently searches open content from 115 different sources and contains 440,380 records.
ScholarWorks@UMassAmherst is a digital showcase of the research and scholarly output of members of the University of Massachusetts Amherst community. The ScholarWorks repository is administered by the UMass Amherst Libraries and serves as a permanent digital archive for these scholarly materials.
Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a unique and extensive index of diverse open access journals from around the world, driven by a growing community committed to ensuring quality content is freely available online for everyone.
Open Massachusetts is a public higher education repository.
WHAT DOES OPEN MEAN?
OPEN ACCESS: free for anyone with internet to access online.
*Digitized (but not necessarily free to reuse and remix), or partially digitized works.
*To publish an open access work, faculty are often faced with an article processing charge (APC), which can be thousands of dollars. The SOAR Fund (Supporting Open Access Research Fund) helps offset these costs.
ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst, a digital showcase of the research and scholarly output of members of the UMass Amherst community.
CREDO, the digital repository of the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center; many digitized unique collections are available online, but many materials are not digitized so a campus visit is necessary to access, and some materials are redacted.
OPEN SOURCE: uses coding that is not proprietary.
Github, an open-source repository
Slic3r, 3D printing software
OPEN EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES (OER): materials can be remixed, adapted for new needs, edited, reordered, combined with other material, and more.
UMass Amherst Writing Program
Student Writing Anthology
Tutt* a tavola! Volume 1
Gifts to the Open Educational Resources Initiative Gift Fund provide resources that support the creation, expansion and distribution of open educational sources to the greater UMass Amherst community and reduces high textbook costs directly lowering cost to students.