UW-Eau Claire is attempting to transform the cost of higher education by offering textbooks and other teaching materials for free.
Materials required for college courses often run students hundreds of dollars per semester. The university hopes to help students with the cost of a degree using open educational resources, or OER.
OER are materials like textbooks, multimedia and interactive learning exercises and other teaching materials that live in the public domain, or that have been released under an open license. That means those materials are free for people to access, use, adapt and redistribute.
It's similar to photos and videos found online that are free for commercial use and alternation.
Right now, UW-Eau Claire's pilot program is offering stipends to 10 faculty members to redesign one of their courses to incorporate OER. The university says priority is given to professors who teach students who are underserved by the university’s current rental textbook program, as well as to professors who teach popular courses.
Meanwhile, UW-Milwaukee has had success with a similar program using OER. The university reports that between 2016 and 2020, students saved $2.3 million in textbook costs after classes adopted OER. 18,900 students benefited from the program, according to UWM, according to a spokesperson.
UW-Eau Claire points to a 2020 survey of students attending UW System schools, which found that 65% of responding students said the cost of textbooks and materials impacted what courses they took. For some, that meant avoiding classes they may have been interested in, or may have helped them attain financial stability in the future.
Other students reported that they dropped out of class or failed a class because they couldn't afford the textbook and other costly materials, according to Jill Markgraf, the director of McIntyre Library, who helped create UW-Eau Claire's pilot program.
“We observe a publishing model, both in journal and textbook content, where the intellectual work of our faculty is creating greater and greater profit margins for publishers,” Markgraf said in an article for the university. “Educational institutions, students and libraries then have to purchase that content back at costs that keep rising and are unsustainable.”
The university has found that students who were enrolled in the courses using the pilot program had positive feedback. Students reported in surveys that they liked the quantity of materials, the broader selection of reading and other aspects - all due to the materials being free and available online.
Correction: UW-Eau Claire's article reported that since 2016, 9,500 students at UW-Milwaukee saved more than $1,615,000 using OER materials. A UWM spokesperson clarified March 31 that 18,900 UWM students saved $2.3 million between 2016 and 2020. This article has been updated.