WCET is happy host the National Consortium of Open Educational Resources (NCOER), which facilitates collaborative efforts of the four regional higher education compacts: Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

In celebration of Open Education Week, today’s guest blogger is Katie Zaback, who is assisting MHEC in measuring the fiscal impact of OER programs. Thank you Katie and to all of our NCOER friends.

-Russ Poulin, WCET

The Open Education movement is one of the most compelling examples of a grassroots effort to make higher education more accessible by lowering the costs of learning materials. Educators worldwide are creating mechanisms, tools, and communities committed to producing Open Education Resources (OER). As defined in the SPARC Policy Playbook, OER is: “teaching, learning, or research resources that are offered freely to users in at least one form and that either reside in the public domain or have been released under an open copyright license that allows for its free use, reuse, modification, and sharing with attribution.” 

6 Cost Benefit Principles for Decision Makers:

1: What You Need to Know Depends on Where You Sit.
2: Access to Course Materials Should Be Equitable.
3: Costs Should Account for Implementation Costs Unique to OER. 
4: Adopting or Adapting Existing OER Can Reduce Costs.
5: OER Support Learning as Well as Commercial Resources.
6: OER Benefits Beyond Student Cost Savings Should be Acknowledged.

In the United States, this movement has been motivated1 by high college textbook costs, which grew more than 30 percent between 2006 and 2016. OER have saved students millions of dollars in recent years, and the calculation and reporting of such savings is a central concern for the OER community as they seek continued and new support for OER work at the state, system, and institutional levels. 

The Midwestern Higher Education Compact, in partnership with the National Consortium of Open Educational Resources (NCOER), convened a working group in 2021 to decide upon principles and guidelines to bring consistency and more accuracy to the calculation of student cost savings and return on investments in OER. This resulting work, to be released in April 2022, is an attempt to support those who implement OER and report on their use to policymakers and decision-makers. Below we detail some of the principles outlined by the working group that informs the soon-to-be-released frameworks. 

Principles for Measuring Student Cost Savings and Performing a Cost-Benefit Analysis

From the existing literature, key informant interviews, and discussions, the workgroup developed six principles for measuring student cost savings and using cost-benefit analysis to understand how different groups benefit from OER. The principles can help to guide decision-makers in creating more consistent cost-savings metrics. 

Principle 1: What You Need to Know Depends on Where You Sit 

OER changes the way schools and faculty provide learning material to students, and it is championed and implemented at multiple levels. However, not all champions need the same level of specificity about student cost savings or system-wide cost-benefit calculations. For example, governors and legislators supporting programs and goals must understand the general direction and magnitude of the impact of OER but not necessarily the specifics, while department chairs and individuals making budget decisions need more specific information.

Principle 2: Access to Course Materials Should Be Equitable

As stewards of the higher education system, it is important for state and institutional decision-makers to create conditions where students have equitable access to the materials they need to succeed in their studies. Adjustments in estimates for actual student behaviors and other factors in student cost savings calculations may be appropriate in situations where precision is essential. However, it is crucial to ensure that cost-savings estimates do not further inequities significantly when they influence policy or decision-making. For example, student cost savings calculations and analyses used for policy and decisions about OER implementation should assume that, if a learning resource material is assigned for a class, all students should have equal first-day and ongoing access to it. 

     Why Our Assumptions Matter: Consider two colleges that adopt OER for English 101. They both have the same number of students and replace a textbook that costs the same amount. One of the colleges, however, has a higher percentage of Pell-eligible students, meaning they or their families have lower incomes. As a result, fewer of their students purchase required learning materials. Suppose a cost-savings calculation is adjusted for actual student behavior. In that case, the college with a higher proportion of Pell-eligible students will have a lower cost-savings estimate, even though both institutions adopted an OER under similar conditions.

Principle 3: Costs Should Account for Implementation Costs Unique to OER 

There are faculty and administrative costs associated with developing and implementing OER. Some of these costs are unique to OER and must be accounted for, but a portion of the expenses of OER implementation is not unique. All course development requires planning, assessment, and integration of learning materials. 

Principle 4: Adopting or Adapting Existing OER Can Reduce Costs 

One of the benefits of OER is its ability to be used and adapted by anyone due to it being in the public domain or having an open license. States and the national government have already invested millions on OER development, which has resulted in a significant library of OER available for anyone to adapt and implement. Cost and benefit estimates should also consider the benefits of scaling these resources more broadly, and planning efforts should encourage faculty to leverage existing resources. 

Principle 5: OER Support Learning as Well as Commercial Resources

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There is a consistent and growing body of evidence showing that, when compared with traditional resources, learning outcomes for students are at least as well or better when they use OER. In 2020, Hilton III2  conducted two meta-analyses3 that found positive or equal outcomes when students are enrolled in courses that use OER courses versus those who enrolled in courses that use “traditional” learning resources. Clinton and Khan’s study yielded similar findings4 in a meta-analysis and Chang found positive correlations5 between OER and student engagement. Research by Colvard, Watson and Park6 also showed that improved end-of-course grades and reduced DFW (Drop/Fail/Withdraw) rates for students enrolled in courses using OER. These findings were even more pronounced for Pell-eligible, part-time, and under-represented racial minority students. These studies show that, when implemented well, OER can help support student learning as well or better than commercial resources. 

Principle 6: OER Benefits Beyond Student Cost Savings Should be Acknowledged

Finally, as OER and the movement to increase its use across higher education matures, the research continues to show that the benefits of OER expand beyond the dollars and cents savings for students. As textbook costs increased, student cost savings was a clear and compelling benefit that propelled the OER movement into faculty conversations and legislative agendas. However, as awareness has grown, saving students money on textbooks has positive spill-over effects. OER has shown the potential to be a key enabler for better learning outcomes, closing equity gaps, and facilitating faculty engagement, among others. These outcomes should be captured and acknowledged using cost-benefit analysis or other approaches that shed light on their impact. 

In the upcoming publication, we will share two frameworks to help guide decision-makers to measure student cost savings and conduct a cost-benefit analysis for OER implementation. These principles and frameworks will help ensure that the field uses the same ingredients to calculate student cost savings even if their recipes are different. We hope that you will check them out and adopt and adapt them to your context.  


 1Ozdemir, O., Hendricks, C. (2017). Instructor and student experiences with open textbooks, from the California open online library for education (Cool4Ed). Journal of Computing in Higher Education 29(1): 98–113. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12528-017-9138-0.

 2Hilton III, J. (2020). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions: a synthesis of research published between 2015 and 2018. Education Tech Research Dev 68, 853-876 Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11423-019-09700-4

 3Hilton III, J. Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions. (2016). Education Tech Research Dev 64, 573–590. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-016-9434-9.

 4Clinton, V     ., Khan, S., (2019). Efficacy of Open Textbook Adoption on Learning Performance and Course Withdrawal Rates: A Meta-Analysis, AERA Open, 5(3). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858419872212.

 5Chang     , I. (2020). Open versus Traditional Textbooks: A Comparison of Student Engagement and Performance. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 32(3), 488-498. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12613/6231.

 6Colvard, N., Watson, C. E., Park, H. (2018). The Impact of Open Educational Resources on Various Student Success Metrics. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20(2) 262-276. Available at: https://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE3386.pdf

Katie Zaback

Founder and Principal, Zaback Solutions


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