Addressing the Cost of Higher Education: Open Educational Resources reduce costs for students, enhance learning

Male student wearing UMKC shirt with laptopThe cost of higher education is an issue, and one the University of Missouri-Kansas City is addressing.

As part of the four-campus University of Missouri System, UMKC has had one of the lowest rates of tuition increase in the U.S. during the past decade. And despite this year’s tuition increase of 1 percent, efforts to keep the overall cost of education are continuing, and are working.

For example, in June 2017, the University of Missouri-Kansas City joined UM System in the Affordable & Open Educational Resources (A&OER) program to save students money on textbooks and other course materials.

“Open” educational resources are free for students; “affordable” refers to books and materials made available at a significantly reduced cost. Even before the system-wide A&OER program began, UMKC already was using AutoAccess, a program that makes textbooks and class materials available online at a lower cost than traditional learning resources. Open textbooks are full, real online textbooks and are licensed to be freely used, edited and distributed. By using open textbooks, faculty can customize content for better student learning outcomes.

“High-quality, affordable education is central to our mission as the state’s public higher education institution,” said UM System President Mun Choi. “By providing open-source and affordable textbooks, we are meeting the needs of our students by lowering their costs and increasing their access to the resources that will help them be successful on our campuses.”

“The issue of textbook prices is part of a larger national conversation that is happening in universities throughout the country,” said Scott Curtis, learning and research librarian at UMKC Libraries. “As a library at a major research institution, we provide thousands of educational resources to our students, faculty and staff every day, which enhances the educational opportunities available to students. This affordable and open educational resources initiative is a collaborative effort among our faculty, staff, students and librarians across every University of Missouri campus.”

Help Lower Textbook Costs for Students

The high cost of some course materials can sometimes impede students’ academic success.

  • The College Board estimates that the average undergraduate can budget $1,220 – $1,420 for textbooks and supplies in 2017–18.
  • The cost of textbooks is rising at a rate four times that of inflation.
  • Seven out of 10 students don’t purchase at least one required textbook during their academic career because of cost.
  • 60 percent of students have delayed purchase of textbooks until they’ve received their financial aid.

“Many faculty who teach Discourse have opted to use OER texts in efforts to reduce costs for students and to make education more responsive to student needs,” said Rhiannon Dickerson, lecturer for Interpersonal and Public Communication and director of Anchor/Discourse. “For many disciplines you can find open resources that compete with traditional texts in terms of expertise and comprehensiveness and that are free to everyone. OER can democratize knowledge and that benefits everyone.”

UMKC faculty who participate in the program share Dickerson’s sentiment.

Lara Mabry

Mabry is an adjunct instructor teaching an introductory biology course online. She is using all OER materials in the class. They include an online textbook from OpenStax, a nonprofit ed-tech initiative based at Rice University; YouTube videos licensed under Creative Commons, a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share; and learning objects from MERLOT II, a source of 40,000 open educational resources.

“I am moving into my third term teaching the introductory Biology 102 course using OER only in the online section. To set up the course, I worked with Scott Curtis and Julie Hartwell at UMKC Libraries to find resources and help sort through the abundance of OER available,” Mabry said. “I also worked with my colleague who was teaching the course to review the resources and make sure they were comparable to what was used previously. I then carefully reviewed the resources to ensure the accuracy of the content, appropriateness for the course material and that the resources were accessible.”

“I use the OpenStax textbook primarily as the required text for the course. There are two biology textbooks that are available through OpenStax, and I use a combination of these two depending on which sections are more aligned with achieving the learning objectives for the content module. I have been pleased with OpenStax, as the textbook integrates well into our learning management systems including both Blackboard (a system being phased out by UMKC) and Canvas (UMKC’s replacement system, now being introduced). This allows me to link the appropriate content directly within the online section for students to easily access. The OpenStax textbook is also available in multiple formats (web-based and downloadable documents such as PDF), which is critical for accessibility reasons. I can also verify students are accessing the links to the material by using learning analytics that are captured within the learning management system, which provides me with much more information and data as to how the students are using the resources within the course. In addition, OpenStax provides question banks and other instructor materials that can also be incorporated directly into the online course site for ease of use.”

“Using multiple resources from videos, text-based documents, lectures and interactive learning objects to teach the course content improves the universal design of the course and ultimately enhances student learning. I have received feedback from the students that they appreciate the diverse resources available in addition to how easy the resources are to access within the online course site. Of course they also appreciate that the materials can be accessed at no cost to them.”

Sean O’Brien

O’Brien is a professor at the UMKC School of Law and is in the early stages of adopting the official OER program. He has already discontinued the use of textbooks in the Postconviction Remedies class and Criminal Procedure 2 class, and while on sabbatical, he intends to put those in a form to make them available generally.

“I am moving in this direction in all my classes because it’s something tangible that I can do to ease the financial burden of law school,” O’Brien said. “Tax revenue support for higher education has not kept pace with the cost, so more and more of my salary is funded largely by student loan debt, so I feel obliged to do what I can to cut the cost of legal education without compromising the quality.”

“The textbook I was using for Criminal Procedure 2 cost $253, which is not unusual for a legal text. So I saved 40 students over $10,000 by not requiring a text. My initial reason for doing so was that I did not like the text; there were important cases and concepts completely missing. When I started teaching Postconviction Remedies, there was no textbook, so I was forced to put my own materials together for that class from the very beginning. In student comments on my faculty evaluations, they don’t like the amount of reading I make them do in PCR class, but they are very happy with the Crim. Procedure 2 materials.”

This article was first published on May 29, 2018, on UMKC Today.