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Open Educational Resources and Zero Textbook Cost

How to find and use Open Educational Resources


Nearly forty percent of CUNY students come from households with annual incomes of less than $20,000. For many of our students, the cost of textbooks can be a steep barrier to academic success. Students often choose not to register for courses that require expensive textbooks, or fail courses simply because they cannot afford the materials. These patterns can lead to increased enrollment time and reduced rates of degree completion.

One way to reduce textbook costs is to offer zero-textbook-cost classes that use Open Educational Resources (OER). OER are teaching, learning, and research tools released under licenses permitting free use/modification while ensuring authors retain copyright to their work. Open resources and pedagogy represent the future of educational technology and instructional design.

The OER initiative at Queens College has saved our students over $2 million in textbook fees since 2018.

What Are Open Educational Resources?

One way to reduce textbook costs is to offer zero-textbook-cost classes that use Open Educational Resources (OER). OERs are more than just free content. OERs are teaching, learning, and research tools released under licenses permitting free use/modification while ensuring authors retain copyright to their work. They do more than just save students money: they provide a way for teachers to tailor educational materials to the specific needs of their class, and to ensure that the materials they use stay up-to-date with the current research.

The "open" in "Open Educational Resources" describes educational content that is either in the public domain or licensed to allow users to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. David Wiley, the Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning, explains what these "5Rs of open content" mean:

  1. Retain - the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse - the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise - the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix - the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute - the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a student or friend)

While many OERs are freely available online, to make the most of these materials teachers need to think creatively about all the ways that the "5R" rights open up new pedagogical possibilities. For example, because OERs are licensed to allow you to revise and remix, you are free to update the material or modify it to suit the needs of your class. Some instructors have collaborated with students on these revisions and remixes, so students are not just downloading information, but actively creating knowledge.

The resources in this guide will help you understand the many new pedagogical possibilities that open up when you use open.

Image credit: "5Rs" by Flickr user EllenSeptember, CC-BY 2.0.

OER vs. ZTC: A Very Brief Definition

While all Open Educational Resources are zero textbook cost materials, not all ZTC materials are OER. In brief:

Open Educational Resources are freely and openly available to everyone to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.

Materials used in zero textbook cost courses are freely available to your students, but neither you nor your students necessarily have the right to modify these materials or share them on the open web.

Open Educational Resources Zero Textbook Cost Materials
  • Openly licensed textbooks, syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, and course materials
  • Openly licensed images
  • Materials in the public domain
  • Online newspaper and magazine articles
  • Online media (YouTube, etc.)
  • Library licensed materials (e-books, articles from the databases)

Why Choose OER?

Open Educational Resources are openly licensed, usually through the Creative Commons. This means that you can include them on public-facing course sites (for example, a course site on Wordpress). It also means that you can usually update and modify the materials as scholarship advances, without waiting for the original author to release a new edition (but be careful -- the CC license ND, for No Derivatives, prohibits alterations to the original). Additionally, OER facilitate participatory pedagogy: you can involve your students more fully in the active creation of scholarship and educational materials. You can also contribute your own scholarly work and teaching materials to the growing body of OER.

You might choose OER if:

  • You want content that can be publicly displayed on the open web
  • You want textbooks, assignments, and other teaching materials that you can update and modify
  • You want content that you can freely download, distribute, and share publicly.

Why Choose ZTC?

While Open Educational Resources open up a lot of pedagogical possibilities, finding and adapting the right resources for your classroom can be time-consuming. Additionally, not all courses need to be open to the public, and not all professors want their own scholarship and teaching materials to be openly available. If you are accustomed to assigning a selection of scholarly articles, short stories or poems from a variety of sources, or just a chapter or two from a textbook, you might find it easier to work with the Course Content Center to clear copyright and hold those materials on reserve for your students, or make them available through a protected site such as Blackboard.

You might choose ZTC materials if:

  • You want to assign academic articles that are not openly available (for example, most articles available through databases like JSTOR)
  • You often rely on course packs rather than a single textbook
  • You teach materials that do not need to be, or cannot meaningfully be, modified (for example, short works of literature)