Open Educational Resources and Their Use in Higher Education

Computer and books

Classroom instruction has traditionally revolved around textbooks and resources licensed from publishers. However, open educational resources can provide an inexpensive, more flexible alternative for supplying students with quality instructional materials. The term open educational resources (OERs) refers to any content (online or not) that is freely available to students and faculty members without requirement of license or payment. The use of OERs has become more and more prevalent in the digital age as a way to transmit information between instructors and students.

Why Should Higher Ed Institutions Adopt an OER Strategy?


Following are several advantages of using OERs in the online classroom.

Reduced Cost to Students

By prioritizing the use of OERs and removing all paid media from a program, the overall cost of a degree will decrease significantly for students. Institutions can use this fact to differentiate themselves when marketing to potential students.

Enhanced Universal Access

Instructors face the challenge of finding materials that incorporate multiple modalities and are accessible to students who have different levels of physical abilities. However, because OERs come in a wide variety of formats (text, video, audio, multimedia, adaptive), a comprehensive OER policy incentivizes instructors to use a variety of media, which helps to address more learning styles and disabilities.

Promotion of Lifelong Learning

Although students can keep their hard copy texts or e-books, studies show at least 55% will sell back their books after the term is over and at least 66% have opted out of buying at least one textbook due to cost at some point in their academic careers (Meyer, 2016). Because many OERs come from third-party sources (e.g., think tanks, academic journals, press publications), students in OER classrooms will not only have access to those materials for the duration of their publication, but also become familiar with sources of information in their fields that they can use for a lifetime.

Safety From Copyright Concerns

Including content from textbook publishers requires faculty members to obtain permission, which can hinder the selection of content (depending on the publisher’s interests). Because OERs are, by their very nature, open to the public, linking to them from a course shell or syllabus circumvents this issue completely.

How Can Institutions Implement an OER Strategy?

Although the decision to adopt an OER strategy will not look the same for each institution, following are several core steps that all institutions will likely need to take along the way.


Define the scope.

The institution will need to decide to what extent it wants to use OERs in its curriculum. Obviously, an OER-only policy will require more investment from faculty members and institutional leaders than an OER-first or OER-encouraged approach. However, the benefits will arguably be greater.

Establish institutional and programmatic standards.

Once the institution defines its strategy, it will need to codify it into policy for faculty members to refer to both when writing new courses and content for existing courses and when selecting materials to share during course facilitation. Setting these standards will also serve as the basis for future professional development.

Provide professional development.

Many faculty members have used textbooks and paid media for the majority of their careers and so are unfamiliar with how to find, select, and incorporate OERs into their instruction. To make this transition seamless, institutions need to support faculty members through both formal professional development and informal learning groups to empower them to develop the best instruction possible under the institution’s standards.

Adjust and maintain curriculum.

Once the institution establishes its standards, it will likely expect all new curriculum to align with those standards. That being said, a large number of courses developed before the adoption of OER will require updating to meet the new standards. Because these updates can create a large volume of work, institutions will need to create a staggered, incremental revision schedule to ensure courses receive necessary updates without overwhelming faculty members.

How Are Colleges and Universities Using OERs Right Now?

Many institutions are in the process of adopting an OER-first or OER-only strategy, but few institutions beyond community colleges have fully implemented them. Below are some examples of institutions that are implementing such approaches, including links where you can learn more.

  • The State University of New York System (SUNY): Although SUNY has focused their OER efforts on associate degrees, the school has operated with an OER publisher (SUNY Textbooks) since 2012 and is currently implementing new incentives for faculty members to opt into OER-based course development (Straumsheim, 2016).
  • The University System of New Hampshire System (USNH): USNH is investing in methods to reduce textbook costs for students and to promote faculty collaboration by publishing academic research online (University System of New Hampshire, n.d.). Although they are adopting an OER-first curriculum strategy, this is a preliminary research project and is currently incomplete. They will release a summary in March 2017.
  • The University of Maryland: Starting in Fall 2013, the University of Maryland’s student council piloted the Maryland Open-Source Textbook (MOST) Initiative to encourage faculty members to use OER-first and textbook-free approaches for entry-level courses (University of Maryland, 2015).
  • A variety of community colleges: OERs are really taking root at the community college level. For example, the OER Degree Initiative (linked) is providing grants for 38 community colleges in 13 states to transition their curriculum to being OER first and textbook free (Achieving the Dream, n.d.).


Adopting an OER-based curriculum either in part (supplementary) or entirely (textbook free) can help differentiate institutions and their instructors from the old textbook-based models at most schools. An OER strategy also helps increase accessibility with respect to disabilities, learning styles, and financial constraints. Although the OER movement is still in its infancy, more and more institutions are successfully implementing it, and laying the proper groundwork is key to creating a consistent, meaningful experience for students.


Achieving the Dream, Inc. (n.d.). Open educational resources (OER) degree initiative. Retrieved from

Meyer, L. (2016, August 24). Report: Students shun new textbooks to reduce education expenses. Retrieved from

Straumsheim, C. (2016, June 22). Scaling up OER. Insider Higher Ed. Retrieved from

University of Maryland University Libraries, Teaching and Learning Transformation Center, and Student Government Association. (2015, February 27). Open educational resources. Retrieved from

University System of New Hampshire. (n.d.). USNH launches open education initiative. Retrieved from

Posted January 26, 2017
Author Nate Ackerly