Keeping Up With... Affordable Course Content

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Kristi Jensen.

Kristi Jensen is Program Development Lead for the eLearning Support Initiative at the University of Minnesota Libraries, email:

Financial Pressures in Higher Education

The cost of higher education and the impact of this cost on students and families is a regular theme in Higher Education publications, as well as local and national newspapers. Rising tuition [1] and student debt [2] [3], increasing student food insecurity [4] (hunger), and the significant cost of textbooks and supplies [5] are just a few of the topics discussed related to this theme.  While individual staff and faculty members have little influence over rising tuition rates, those involved with the selection of course readings (textbooks, print and digital course packs, multimedia materials, etc.) can influence or make decisions that impact students both financially and academically.

Depending on the time period analyzed, textbook prices have risen between 800 [6] and 1,000% [7] in the last three decades, outpacing housing prices, the Consumer Price Index, medical services, and the price of new homes. The College Board estimated that students should budget $1,298 for books and supplies [8] for 2015-2016 academic year. While students often implement creative strategies to make textbooks and other course materials more affordable, e.g. renting books, buying older editions, sharing textbooks, or not buying a textbook at all, [9] many of these strategies can negatively impact their academic success. 

Changing Focus on Innovative Teaching and Learning

A parallel theme that has permeated Higher Education institutions for the past several years has focused on methods of teaching and learning. Many institutions and faculty invested time and resources in the creation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) [10] which expand the reach of faculty expertise and institutional reputation. In addition, MOOCs encouraged new ways of thinking about teaching and learning that impacted and reached back to campus classrooms.  During this time, conversations about flipped classrooms [11], nomadic teaching [12], “sticky” teaching [13], use of social media tools [14], affordable course content options, and more have abounded in the Higher Education literature.  

Libraries, Leadership, and Affordable Course Content

The dual pressures of concerns about the rising costs of higher education and a focus on innovative teaching and learning create an environment where many faculty are receptive to the exploration of affordable course content options. Libraries are key leaders in this space for a number of reasons. 

First, “content” has been the purview of libraries in the academic setting for hundreds of years.  We have developed collections and services for users to find and access those collections, provided experts to assist with basic and complex questions, and continue to expand and develop new expertise as the formats and types of information change over time. In addition, libraries have assets worth millions of dollars that can be mined for use in the classroom setting.

Second, given the complexity of the modern, digital environment, one of the key support mechanisms needed when exploring alternative course content is an understanding of the spectrum of options available, as well as, the ability to effectively search, discover, and provide relevant content. Librarians have a history of following and understanding the world of information, content, and publishing and have long served as expert searchers in support of any academic information need. 

Third, libraries have actively supported concepts of “open” access and data for more than a decade. Open educational content is simply an extension of these previous advocacy efforts.

Finally, libraries have always provided a variety of mechanisms to support faculty and students in the classroom. Instruction to support student research, customized library course pages linking students to relevant content, and both print and electronic reserves are some examples.  Building new services and infrastructure that further support teaching and learning are a growth of previous services in response to the changing environment.

Affordable Course Content Options

OER/Open Textbooks

Open Educational Resources (OER) and open textbooks may be one of the most familiar affordable course content options available today. Openly licensed content is freely available (in a digital format) to both faculty and students; if students elect to obtain a print copy of the material, they pay only for the printing costs (not the content).  Depending on the license applied to the content, faculty can usually edit or modify it to meet the needs of their course.

Thousands of open learning objects covering a wide range of disciplines can be found by searching online. Several well-known repositories provide access to a majority of these learning modules. Visit Merlot [15], CNX [16], and OER Commons [17] to search for open content on a wide variety of topics. As OER repositories have developed, they have begun to include functionality that provides for the review of some materials and more nuanced, faceted searching. Despite these enhancements, searching for OER can be challenging. Faculty frequently express skepticism about the quality of OER and reluctance to wade through all of the options and results, so mediated searching and review may be required in many cases. 

Since faculty are often familiar and comfortable with textbooks, they may prefer an open textbook rather than OER modules. Early open textbooks were often developed by individuals for their courses, but a whole new model, sometimes referred to as Open Textbooks 2.0, that parallels the traditional textbook publishing process has arisen. OpenStax College [18] has released 17 peer reviewed textbooks supporting primarily large enrollment courses and are a great example of the new model. In some cases, free or low-cost supplemental materials  [19] are available as well. The Open Textbook Library [20] provides access to a select set of approximately 200 open textbooks and is gathering faculty reviews to inform others considering an adoption. OpenStax and the Open Textbook Library, with peer reviewed content and faculty reviews of textbooks, provide resources that assist in dealing with faculty skepticism related to the quality of materials as well.

If you are interested in exploring how Libraries can be engaged with OER support, the SPARC Open Education site [21] provides overview information and a means to converse with libraries and librarians active in this arena via the Libraries and OER Forum [22].

Support for Publishing Open Content

While many libraries are contemplating and developing their role as publisher, several libraries, including Open Oregon State [23] and Open SUNY [24], have focused these efforts on producing new open textbooks. Libraries can support faculty who wish to publish an open textbook in a number of ways.  Building or acquiring infrastructure (like WordPress or BePress) can lead to more in-depth, hands on support for publication. Those who choose not to invest in infrastructure can still help faculty identify appropriate authoring tools and repositories for their materials and advertise the “publication” of materials to peer institutions.

Library Licensed Content

Libraries have rich collections of print and online materials that can be considered for use in the classroom. Chapters from multiuser ebooks, entries from specialized encyclopedias, and case studies or articles from journals can be combined to create a set of materials that replaces a traditional textbook. Materials can be linked to from an e-reserves system or links can be integrated into a learning management system. Again, given the breadth of materials and the demands on faculty time, expert assistance from subject librarians, eLearning librarians, and copyright librarians, can expedite the creation of these digital course packs.

Hybrid Options

Open content or library licensed content alone may not be the answer for a particular course. Librarians can help faculty assemble a hybrid course pack that includes both options, as well as, public domain materials, links to freely available content on the web, government information, and content the faculty member claims as Fair Use. Librarian teams can help navigate the myriad of questions that can arise when utilizing multiple content types

Incentive Programs

Moving an academic culture comfortable with the traditional textbook model in new directions may require some early examples of success. Several libraries have implemented modest incentive programs to encourage faculty to adopt alternative course content. Some models/examples of incentive programs are listed below.


Libraries are poised to provide leadership on alternative course content options on their campuses. A variety of simple or more in-depth projects can be developed to create a program customized for a particular institutional environment. Implementing these customized strategies with both short-term and long term building blocks or goals will create a shift in academic culture that supports increased usage and creation of more affordable content options and improved student success. 


[1]    Kambhampati, Sandhya and Meredith Myers. “Minimum-Wage Work Alone Won’t Get You Through College.” Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC), August. 28, 2015.

[2] Thomason, Andy.  “Average Student Debt Climbed Higher in 2014, Study Finds.” tHE Ticker blog, Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC), October. 27, 2015.

[3]  Lederman, Doug.  “Student Debt, Rising Again.” Inside HigherEd (Washington, DC), October. 27, 2015.

[4]  Kolowich, Steve.  “How Many College Students Are Going Hungry?.” Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC), November 3, 2015.

[5]  Straumsheim, Carl.  “Triaging Textbook Costs.” Inside HigherEd (Washington, DC), August 4, 2015.

[6]  Perry, Mark J.  “The College Textbook Bubble and How the ‘Open Educational Resources’ Movement Is Going up against the Textbook Cartel,” AEIdeas blog.

[7]  Popken, Ben.  “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977.”  Freshman Year Experience blog, NBC News, August 6, 2015.

[8]  The College Board, “Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2015–16.  Trends in College Pricing 2015,

[9]  Parry, Marc.  “Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying.”  Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC), January 27, 2013.

[10]  Kazakoff-Lane, Carmen.  “Keeping Up With….MOOCs.”  ACRL Keeping Up With…., March 2014.

[11]  O’Flaherty, Jacqueline and Craig Phillips.  “The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review.”  Internet and Higher Education, 25 (2015): 85-95.

[12]  Fisher, Thomas.  “My Nomadic Class.” The Conversation blog, Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC), April 15, 2015.

[13]  Berrett, Dan.  “Teaching Science So It Sticks.”  Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC),  May 4, 2015.

[14]  Rogers, Megan. “Wired for Teaching.”  Inside HigherEd (Washington, DC)October 21, 2013.

[15]  California State University System.   “Merlot II, Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[16] Rice University.  “OpenStax CNX.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[17] Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME).  “OER Commons.” Accessed November 25, 2015.

[18] Rice University.  ‘OpenStax College.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[19]  Rice University.  “College Physics: Supplemental Resources.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[20] Center for Open Education, University of Minnesota.  “Open Textbook Library.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[21] Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).  “Open Education.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[22] Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).  “Libraries and OER Forum.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[23] Oregon State University.  “Open Oregon State.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[24] Milne Library, SUNY Geneseo.  “Open SUNY.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[25]  University Libraries, Temple University.   “Alternate Textbook Project.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[26]  UMass Amherst Libraries.  “Open Education Initiative.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[27]  University of Oklahoma Libraries.  “Alternative Textbooks: Home.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[28]  North Carolina State University Libraries.  ‘Alt-Textbook Project.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[29]  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, San Jose State University.  “Textbook Alternatives Project.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[30]  UCLA Library.  “Affordable Course Materials Initiative.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[31]  Kansas State University Libraries.  “Open/Alternative Textbook Initiative.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.

[32] University of Minnesota Libraries.  “Partnership for Affordable Content.”  Accessed November 25, 2015.