Seven ways open educational resources grew in 2021

State governments and universities have spent millions of dollars to expand the use of free online course materials.

campus book store
A student checks her phone while shopping for textbooks classes begin amid the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of the fall 2020 semester at the University of New Mexico on August 17, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Sam Wasson / Getty Images)

As colleges and universities continue to test open educational resources, millions of dollars are being spent on programs that explore how students and instructors use free online materials.

The funding is designed not only to create new, free textbooks for instructors to incorporate into courses, but also to redesign the courses themselves to shift the learning process away from traditional, hardbound textbooks.

California officials this year approved $115 million to develop OER and zero-textbook courses across the state after estimating savings from an earlier “zero-textbook” initiative. Pennsylvania and West Virginia also awarded thousands of dollars in OER grants.

Here are seven examples of how open educational resources grew in 2021.

1. Transforming general education

University of Arkansas

At the University of Arkansas, an instructional designer and librarian are working with faculty to shift from a traditional textbook approach in courses to open educational resources. The team, funded through the university’s student success center, is first updating an open textbook for the sociology department, according to the university

2. Testing new textbooks

West Virginia Higher Education Commission

The West Virginia Higher Education Commission estimated this month that an OER pilot program that launched in the spring with 34 faculty across the state’s public universities — with a “handful” more joining over the summer — saved students $250,000.

The Open West Virginia initiative, which awarded $1,000 grants to faculty who converted their classes to OER, stemmed from policy passed in December 2019, when lawmakers established the West Virginia Program for Open Educational Resources.

3. Making room in the budget


California lawmakers in June approved a new budget that dedicates $115 million dedicated to open educational resources. The funding promotes programs in which students do not have to buy textbooks and can instead use OER, and builds on a statewide zero-cost textbook initiative.

Some California colleges are already working toward a goal of moving 100% of classes into open educational resources, though the transition will be a long one: Compton College, a two-year school in Los Angeles County, estimates it’ll hit the 100% mark in 2035.

4. Researching improvements

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation approved $2 million in funding for a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska, Cornell and the University of Maine to investigate the effects of open educational resources. The project, announced in August, focuses on undergraduate biology instruction using materials published through CourseSource, a website for peer-reviewed physics and biology materials.

Researchers plan to review CourseSource’s offerings, interview authors and site users and design assessments to gauge the effects of implementing open resources, according to the University of Nebraska.

5. Distributing statewide grants


Using federal pandemic relief funding last year, Pennsylvania created a new statewide grant program to help schools create or implement open educational resources, with the first two rounds of funding going out this year.

Out of the 60-plus projects approved so far, 31 are developing courses that would use open educational resources, 25 are working on the materials themselves, and seven are focusing on replacing traditional textbooks through the campus library licensing materials.

6. Publicizing available materials

Auburn University

Auburn University’s program to help students improve their writing skills announced in October a new online hub that allows students and instructors to access learning materials created for writing workshops. The school’s University Writing program built a digital infrastructure for its materials, reviewed them and published them online.

The materials featured on the University Writing OER include guidance for students on how to compose professional emails or write in an academic voice, as well as materials for instructors. Users can look up how to give effective written student feedback or design assignments.

7. Developing missing resources


A group led by OpenStax, an edtech nonprofit based at Houston’s Rice University that publishes peer-reviewed materials online, received $1.13 million from the U.S. Education Department to develop computer science materials, according to a November announcement.

OpenStax plans to create three open-license textbooks with the funding. Other collaborators include the Consortium of Open Education Resource Educators, which works with its member institutions to integrate open educational resources into classes.

“The work CORE can do, thanks to this funding, will not only enhance student engagement in computer and data science programs, it will remove barriers for students — especially underrepresented minorities in STEM,” OpenStax managing director Daniel Williamson said in a press release.