Encourage Affordable Content

by Aimee Denoyelles,

“The number of students purchasing the textbook in my class has declined over the years; now, every student has access to the course materials on the first day of class, with no delay.” – Jim Clark, UCF Faculty


Faculty sometimes complain that students are unprepared for class, not utilizing the course materials. While studying habits could be an explanation, it is also possible that students are unprepared because they are simply not purchasing the materials. A survey was recently distributed throughout the state of Florida about student textbook and course materials (Florida Virtual Campus, 2018). It was reported that while textbook costs have trended lower since 2012, the high cost of textbooks is continuing to negatively impact student access to the required materials, academic performance, and time to graduate. In addition, required textbooks are purchased but not always used in course instruction.

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast open educational resources (OER) and low-cost affordable alternatives
  • Identify the key questions that guide faculty as they consider high-quality, affordable content
  • Describe different ways to support faculty to explore and adopt affordable content
  • Select incentives to support particular faculty to create affordable course materials

While faculty typically do not affect college costs like tuition and room and board, they can make deliberate choices about the cost of course materials. When presented with data about high textbook costs, most faculty express a desire to do whatever they can to support students to succeed in their courses. However, many courses are structured around the sequence of the the assigned textbook, and the assessments are directly aligned with the textbook (often provided by the publisher). This can make adopting an alternative resource challenging, as the course design itself often needs to be rethought. On the upside, reconsidering online course design and carefully selecting content are likely to lead to a higher quality learning experience. There are some strategies to support faculty on this journey of exploring affordable content.

Affordable Content Defined

First, faculty need to be able to distinguish the terms that reside under the “affordable” umbrella. For instance, some may be familiar with the term “open educational resources” (OER) but still may not be able to clearly define it. Put simply, open educational resources are openly licensed, giving users the legal permission to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the material. A common example is the collection of textbooks available through OpenStax which readers can digitally access for free, and even edit and share with others. In contrast, materials accessed through a university library are seldom OER, due to the copyrighted nature of the works; however, they come with no added cost to students, making it an attractive alternative. Other options cost money, but at a reduced amount. For instance, digital versions and rental options often cost less than a new, print textbook. Bookstores and publishers are also beginning to offer reduced cost options on traditional textbooks (for example, Barnes and Noble’s First Day; Cengage’s Unlimited).

Second, faculty need to be asked about their perceptions of OER, specifically the quality of the content. Many research studies indicate that both students and faculty judge the quality of OER to be comparable or better when compared to publisher materials. In addition, course performance is almost always found to be the same or better. John Hilton, proponent of OER, asks, “If the average college student spends approximately $1000 per year on textbooks and yet performs scholastically no better than the student who utilizes free OER, what exactly is being purchased with that $1000 (2016, p. 588)?” These research findings can encourage a faculty member who may be unfamiliar with OER to at least begin exploring more affordable options.

Guiding Questions for Faculty

Considering alternative content is actually an opportune time for faculty to truly revisit the objectives and goals for the course. This course review process could be associated with an existing faculty development program, or integrated within a new one. Before getting lost in the OER repositories, ask faculty these preliminary questions:

  • What is important for your students to know by the end of the course? Five years from now?
  • What is important for your students to be able to demonstrate by the end of the course? Five years from now?
  • Map the ideal sequence of your course, unfettered from a textbook. What concepts build on each other? Let them think about what it would be like to be “free” from the textbook structure.
  • To what degree are your current materials supporting your desired outcomes?
  • What do you like about your current text? What do you not?

Based on their answers, alternatives can be explored. If the faculty member feels strongly about their current choice of publisher content, then avenues to reduce the cost of the textbook can be explored. Perhaps the library owns a digital copy that students can access, for example. If they do not feel strongly about their current materials, then OER is a path in which to point. However, while the amount of OER is dramatically increasing, it can be overwhelming to explore. The most popular repositories are listed at the bottom of the page, which help to curate the many resources online. Once an OER is found, there are decisions to be made. Perhaps an OER can be adopted as-is, or perhaps several resources can be remixed, with the teacher editing the sequence or wording. If nothing is found, a faculty member could always create their own material to use and share with others in the academic community. It is encouraging to point faculty toward the online communities that exist around teaching with OER. For instance, OER Commons has groups formed around the OpenStax books, in which ancillary resources like presentation slides and test banks are shared.

Teaching with Open Content

Openly licensed course materials do not only exist to save money; they also have the potential to create many exciting opportunities to improve teaching and learning. Often grouped under the rubric of open (or OER-enabled) pedagogy, these opportunities arise from the mutually reinforcing relationship between the 5R permissions (which are inherent to all OER) and learner-centered course design. In practice, the best examples of open pedagogy involve creating assignments and activities that empower students to add value to the world (Wiley, 2013), leveraging the 5R permissions in ways that encourage students to interact with, enhance, and transform openly licensed content and contribute the fruits of their work to the global knowledge commons.

The following real-world examples highlight several effective strategies for teaching with OER.

Food, Nutrition, and Health 200

Dr. Judy Chan’s course in Food, Nutrition and Health at the University of British Columbia: students do research on a food type and produce a wiki page (either on Wikipedia proper or on UBC wiki, where content can be viewed by anyone but only edited by UBC affiliated users. (See students’ team projects from 2015w)

PHIL 102: Intro to Philosophy

An undergraduate course taught by Christina Hendricks at the University of British Columbia. The instructor creates a course blog and asks students to post short papers on key course readings and topics. Students know in advance that their papers will be shared with a global audience, rather than strictly with the course instructor. Blog-based assignments like this one are very easy to implement and have the added benefit of giving students the opportunity to improve their digital information literacy.

Butte Biology

Website with detailed information on an open assignment designed by Suzanne Wakim at Butte College. As Suzanne describes: “In this course design we will move students from being consumers of information to being producers of informational content. Rather than simply read a textbook (or watching a video, or doing an activity) to gain information, students will learn the same content by analyzing how information is presented. They will then, as a series of classes, create educational content which will put online and become available to anyone.”

The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature

A reader of early American literature created by undergraduate students at Plymouth State University for a course taught by Robin DeRosa. For more information on this and other innovative, open assignments designed by DeRosa, see her book chapter, “From OER to Open Pedagogy: Harnessing the Power of Open” (2017).
For additional examples, see the Open Pedagogy Notebook.


As noted before, adopting alternative materials comes with considerations, and often requires the faculty to allocate time and effort in redesigning certain aspects of their course. Institutions in Florida and beyond are supporting faculty to adopt affordable content by using different textbook affordability models.

Course Marking Programs

Even at institutions with established affordable content initiatives, not all faculty and students are aware that open and affordable options exist. Requiring that courses with affordable materials be designated in course catalogues when a student registers for classes can help to spread awareness of these options. In addition to allowing students to be smart consumers when selecting courses, course marking programs not only recognize the work of faculty who have adopted affordable materials for their courses but also encourage their peers to consider following suit.

Since 2017, several State University System institutions in Florida have implemented affordable course marking programs, including Affordable UF and FIU’s Affordability Counts. Both of these programs set a threshold of $20 per credit hour in order for courses to receive an affordability badge or medallion.

Faculty Development

Another model is to design targeted, incentivized training about affordable content. For instance, UCF offered an opportunity for a cohort of faculty members to participate in training in which they learned strategies to find, reuse, remix, create, and share OERs within copyright and fair use guidelines, with an emphasis on student engagement and active learning. The end goal was that participants enhanced at least one of their courses with OERs. Upon completion, each faculty member was awarded a stipend of $500 to recognize this important work. An additional strategy which has been found to be successful is to incentivize faculty to actively explore and interact with OER. For instance, FSU faculty were offered a $200 stipend to engage with an open book in their discipline and write a review of the book. The act of reviewing the textbook has been associated with increased adoptions of OER.

Having a unified, robust web presence can be helpful to support faculty interested in exploring the options. For instance, USF’s Textbook Affordability Project (TAP) brings together many resources for a faculty to independently explore within the Faculty Toolbox, such as best practices, eBook guides, and checklists. Note that TAP is not limited to OER, but acknowledges a wide range of affordable content options.

Statewide Approach

Some states in the U.S. have created a statewide approach to encouraging affordable content. For instance, Affordable Learning Georgia describes their encompassing approach in four ways: (1) awarding grants to faculty and staff to transform courses to OER or low-cost solutions; (2) create new OER for high-enrollment courses; (3) making the open materials available through an OER repository; and (4) identifying champions and coordinators who serve to raise awareness of textbook affordability efforts for each campus.


While there is clearly a need for more affordable education for students, encouraging and supporting faculty to explore and adopt affordable content must be carefully planned. Here are some key points to consider before planning gets underway:

  • Become familiar with the varied ways to encourage access to affordable content.
  • Determine which incentives may be particularly attractive to particular faculty (stipends, recognition, time off?).
  • Offer varying levels of faculty development, depending on faculty competency and expertise.

OER Search Tools

OpenStax: http://www.openstax.org

Open Textbook Library: https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/

OER Commons: https://www.oercommons.org/
Orange Grove (Florida): https://www.floridashines.org/orange-grove

Open SUNY (New York): https://textbooks.opensuny.org/
George Mason Meta-Finder: https://oer.deepwebaccess.com/oer/desktop/en/search.html

OASIS (Openly Available Sources Integrated Search): https://oasis.geneseo.edu/

We would like to hear from you. Perhaps you know of other affordable content resources you would like to share or effective practices worthy of mentioning. Please share these ideas or models with us in the Community of Practice.


Florida Virtual Campus. (2018). 2018 Florida Student Textbook & Course Materials Survey: Executive Summary. Tallahassee, FL. Retrieved from https://dlss.flvc.org/documents/210036/1314923/2018+Student+Textbook+and+Course+Materials+Survey+-+Executive+Summary.pdf/3c0970b0-ea4b-9407-7119-0477f7290a8b

Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64(4), 573-590. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11423-016-9434-9

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Aimee deNoyelles is an Associate Instructional Designer at the University of Central Florida. She specializes in quality course design, textbook affordability, and online discussions.