Before Brandon English developed his own learning materials for the organic chemistry classes he teaches at Red Rocks Community College, his students were spending close to $600 for textbooks, in addition to paying tuition and fees. And those costs pushed many of his promising students to drop out.
“There’s this huge financial barrier to entry, and then there’s a huge financial barrier to completion,” English said.
English and many of his colleagues on the faculty at Red Rocks in the past few years have pivoted away from costly textbooks, creating and curating their own learning materials that dramatically cut down on classroom expenses for students.
Those materials are known as open educational resources — what the Colorado Department of Higher Education defines as “freely available online teaching and learning materials accessible to students, instructors and self-learners.”
Red Rocks has embraced OER materials so thoroughly that by the end of the spring semester, students will be able to complete an associate’s degree with 95% of their classes using free resources, Library Director Karen Neville said.
That doesn’t guarantee that every student pursuing a degree will have a course load that relies so heavily on OER, Neville said, but it will be an option for some.
The community college’s efforts to spare students hefty textbook costs are part of a broader initiative at campuses across Colorado encouraging professors to trade in traditional textbooks for their own assortment of free educational materials.
The savings add up quickly. CDHE estimates that students spend between $900 and $1,800 for class materials, books and supplies each school year.
Those cost savings also pave the way for a more equitable education.
English said Red Rocks is focused on how it can treat its students more fairly and make education more accessible — but it largely boils down to money.
In trying to retain students, “we’re nickel and diming them to death,” English said.
OER experts rattle off a list of other benefits of the free resources, including that they allow students to have all critical learning materials on the first day of class, can easily be updated to reflect current information, and relate directly to a course’s learning outcomes.
Additionally, OER materials give classrooms the power to be more inclusive places for students as they can incorporate case studies, stories and experiences that are much broader than what is found in the typical textbook.
“It’s important for everyone to see themselves reflected in the materials they’re studying,” Neville said.
Gov. Jared Polis has championed efforts to introduce OER into Colorado classrooms through his administration’s goal to make college more affordable.
“Governor Polis is focused on saving students and hardworking families money on higher education,” spokesman Conor Cahill said in a statement. “That means looking at everything from addressing institutional cost drivers, like health care and technology, to saving students money on outrageous textbook costs for which costs have risen four times faster than inflation over the last 40 years.”
The governor’s challenge, known as the ZTC — zero textbook cost — challenge, encourages higher education institutions and educators across Colorado to develop classes and degree programs that don’t rely on textbooks. Through the challenge, Polis will recognize faculty, staff and programs enabling students to complete their education without spending any money on textbooks during CDHE’s Statewide Colorado OER Conference in June.
A grant program managed by Colorado’s Open Educational Resources Council is supporting the rollout of OER materials in classes and programs across the state. Last year, the council distributed $550,000 in grants to colleges, resulting in more than $3.4 million in estimated savings for students.
This year, the Colorado OER Grant Program will award institutions $1 million to implement OER in the classroom, followed by another $1 million next year, according to Spencer Ellis, director of educational innovation for CDHE.
The grants range from $250 to $10,000 to benefit faculty for smaller-scale projects, and up to $100,000 to support institutions embarking on more comprehensive OER initiatives, Ellis said.
Nearly 24,000 students across the state took courses that were supported by an OER grant last year, according to a 2019 CDHE report on OER. More than 7,700 other students enrolled in OER classes not supported by a grant last year, according to figures provided voluntarily by institutions, the report noted.
Additionally, CDHE joined the Open Textbook Network, a consortium administered by the University of Minnesota, and partners with the network to train its Open Education Ambassadors. More than 120 Colorado ambassadors — administrators, faculty members, librarians — have gone through training and brought what they learned back to their campuses to become leaders in advancing OER efforts.
Other training opportunities are tailored toward institutions and toward educators.
Colorado Community Colleges Online — an online component of the Colorado Community College System — developed its first OER and textbook-free course in 2011, according to Tina Parscal, associate vice chancellor for CCCOnline and academic affairs.
This semester, 84 courses facilitated through CCCOnline have no textbook costs, with additional courses available at physical community college campuses, according to Fiona Lytle, chief communications officer and legislative liaison for the Colorado Community College System.
The online learning provider also offers two textbook-free degrees, in history and early childhood education, with a focus on communication coming this summer.
OER has made college more affordable for students like Jennifer James, a sophomore studying biology at Red Rocks.
If James was forced to buy textbooks for all her classes, she wouldn’t be able to afford college.
Last semester, when she enrolled in college algebra, the only course cost was tuition. This semester, as a student in English’s general chemistry class, she purchased a used copy of the general chemistry textbook for $240.
“It was a big cost difference,” she said.
English is just starting to develop OER materials for his general chemistry classes, working with a prototype that will evolve into a full-fledged textbook that will be released in the fall.
The professor has spent the past three years writing a textbook for his Organic Chemistry I students and another for his Organic Chemistry II students. A digital version of the textbooks is available to students for free while a printed textbook costs about $20.
English also produced a key for the work problems contained in his textbooks and offers that to students for free, pushing back against his frustration that publishers often charge students separately for textbooks and for the answer key.
Writing the textbooks was a learning process for English, who gave his students some ownership along the way as he consulted them for feedback.
The goal isn’t just to create something that is low cost. English’s textbooks also must match or exceed the quality of those available through publishers. He’s trying to involve a lot of peer review, which has included collecting comments and suggestions from a colleague and students at Fort Lewis College in Durango. This year, after first putting out a few chapters and then beta testing, the entire books have been released and have gotten better, largely because of student input, English said.
The work is time consuming, but it means that students like James, who said she grew up in poverty, have access to the same kind of education as her peers.
“By making those free, you put everybody (on) an equal playing field,” she said.