March 2021 | Volume XXXIX. Issue 1 »

Out in the Open: Inclusivity, Access, and Open Educational Resources in Illinois

March 1, 2021
Elizabeth Clarage, CARLI; Daniel Matthews, Moraine Valley Community College Library; and Dee Anna Phares, Northern Illinois University Libraries

In his 1852 work, “A Vision of a Wrangler, of a University, of Pedantry, and of Philosophy,” the physicist, and sometimes poet, James Clerk Maxwell spoke of “All the costly apparatus, / That is meant to elevate us / To the intellectual status / Necessary for degrees”[i] (ll. 73-76). Nearly 170 years later, that apparatus is substantially more costly, both in terms of the financial burden college students are asked to assume and in the ways that this burden thwarts student efforts to succeed and attain their degrees and their dreams for a better future. Libraries in Illinois and beyond have a vital role to play in expanding access to that apparatus. By promoting and subsidizing Open Educational Resources (OER), academic libraries can help ensure that students can attain the intellectual and professional status they aspire to.

In 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”[ii] However, the high cost of higher education is making it inaccessible for many. As early as 2003, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission noted that “financial constraints was the number one reason (79%) given by college counselors for why some of their college prep seniors did not go on to college.”[iii] More recently, the Commission’s 2019 annual evaluation of the Monetary Award Program (MAP) acknowledged that funding at its highest grant level covered only 33% of tuition and fees for public universities and 37% of tuition and fees at community colleges.[iv] These expenses are only the beginning; students or their families must cover the cost of room and board, personal transportation, and books and materials. And one of the most weighty financial burdens is the price of textbooks.

The prevailing model for the provision of college-level educational resources requires students to purchase all of their course materials (i.e., textbooks and course packets). This model has changed little in the past few decades to accommodate the exponential rise in the cost of classroom resources. While the Consumer Price Index has increased by 250% since 1978, college textbook prices have increased 812%.[v] On average, public four-year colleges and universities in Illinois recommend that students should budget $1,300 a year for their books and supplies, though the actual cost varies. Research on high textbook prices shows that many students did not purchase a textbook (64.2%), took fewer courses (42.8%), did not register for a course (40.5%), earned a poor grade (35.6%), or dropped a course (22.9%) because they were unable to afford required course materials.[vi] Each of these has an impact on a student’s education. As the cost continues to rise, access to affordable textbooks is becoming a substantial barrier to student success. But librarians can play a role in reducing the cost of books and materials by working with faculty to support the adoption and creation of Open Educational Resources, or OER.

By definition, Open Educational Resources are open—with licenses that allow anyone to retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute materials at little or no cost.[vii] This openness stands in stark contrast to the current system of profit-based textbook publication and dissemination which reduces accessibility and widens the equity gap. The employment of high-quality OER, however, not only makes higher education more affordable, it expands and equalizes access to learning materials—removing a significant barrier to student achievement. Because of their centrality to the research and instruction missions of their institutions, academic libraries are the obvious home for campus-wide OER efforts and faculty frequently turn to their libraries for help in identifying, adapting, or designing OER meant to benefit their students. However, academic libraries often lack the funds and the specialist training required to foster robust OER initiatives—especially in the realm of OER creation.


• Cost Reduction

We've already identified the costs of textbooks as a barrier for students in higher education. When OER is functioning in an ideal situation, it provides free digital access course materials where everyone has internet access and can utilize any format needed, which is not always the case. Still, in most cases OER materials, including primary texts and supplemental materials, will be available digitally to many students, and, due to the nature of creative commons licensing, print versions can be made available to students at cost or with a mark-up at the bookstore that will still be saving students money in comparison to traditional course materials, especially when large publishers are involved.

• Support for Academic Freedom

If approached about implementing OER in their courses, faculty may feel that it is encroaching on their academic freedom, but if we consider the rigidity of a commercial textbook, OER opens up a multitude of opportunities for customizing and curating course content. Within the framework of creative commons, faculty can combine already existing OER with their own original works to create course materials tailored to their needs. They have control over just about every aspect of the course content. For example, if a particular chapter of an OER textbook doesn’t fit a course, it can be removed or substituted with one written or adapted by the faculty member, or chapter orders in that text can be rearranged to match the flow of the course.

• Inclusion through Open Pedagogy

The focus of conversations about adapting OER to fit course needs is often about how the instructor makes decisions about what is presented to their course. However, this freedom also allows instructors to include their students in the creation of course content, as seen in the Open Pedagogy Notebook: “In this way, Open Pedagogy invites us to focus on how we can increase access to higher education and how we can increase access to knowledge—both its reception and its creation. This is, fundamentally, about the dream of a public learning commons, where learners are empowered to shape the world as they encounter it. With the open license at the heart of our work, we care both about ‘free’ and about ‘freedom,’ about resources and practices, about access and about accessibility, about content and about contribution.” [viii] When students are included in the creation and curation of course materials as part of the assignment for a course, their work can take on additional value. On top of the validation of grades and concept mastery, students get to conceptualize their work as having long-term value by impacting future classes.

To help offer a bit of insight and inspiration to those developing their own OER programs, we’ve reached out to academic institutions in Illinois to provide a brief profile of their efforts. Here are some of the responses:

• Illinois Institute of Technology

While many college and university libraries across Illinois are enthusiastic about the potential of OER, their fervor is often tempered by budgetary limitations. The Illinois Institute of Technology’s libraries developed a survey to learn more about student textbook-purchasing; the infographic which grew out of those results was shared with faculty. Also, the libraries recorded interviews with faculty who are avid advocates for OER on campus in an effort to induce more of their colleagues to switch to open resources.

• Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University Libraries has produced a LibGuide focused on Textbook Affordability that provides information on OER repositories, sites where faculty can find open access music, videos, and images, as well as free courses, and it is in the process of creating a new LibGuide with subject-specific OER materials for disciplines such as Psychology and Education. NIU librarians and library staff have run workshops, collaborated with the university’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning on conference presentations, training sessions, and webinars aimed at increasing adoption and creation of open materials.

• Triton College

Open materials were first incorporated into online horticulture courses. Since then, the program has expanded to include rhetoric, speech, and chemistry courses among others. Triton College crossed the threshold of saving students $1 million on textbooks and course materials in spring 2019. Workshops are held regularly to support faculty who wish to incorporate OER and other low-cost learning materials into their classes. More recently, these workshops have been focused on how OER can support students in a largely remote learning environment. In addition to making college more affordable, the program contributes to the overall learning experience of students. A 2018 survey of Triton College students enrolled in courses using low-cost course materials showed that 94 percent of students agree the course materials were easily accessible and 98 percent would recommend the course materials for future classes. 

Many Illinois college and university libraries have been actively working to address the textbook affordability crisis on their campuses through initiatives that promote awareness, adoption, and creation of open educational resources (OERs). As models of these activities are evolving, it is evident that promoting and supporting OER creation is the most challenging due to the tools, skills, and time required to author OERs.

The authors thank Lauren Kosrow, Triton College and Kimberly Shotick, Northern Illinois University, for contributing information from their institutions.

[i] James Clerk Maxwell, “A Vision of a Wrangler, of a University, of Pedantry, and of Philosophy” (1852), Poetry Foundation,

[ii] The United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),

[iii] Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Are Cost Barriers Keeping Qualified Students from College? (2003),

[iv] Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Monetary Award Program (MAP) Evaluation (February 2019),

[v]Mark J. Perry, “The College Textbook Bubble and How the ‘Open Educational Resources” Movement is Going up against the Textbook Cartel,” American Enterprise Institute (blog), December 24, 2012,

[vi] Florida Virtual Campus, Office of Distance Learning & Student Services, 2018 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey: Results and Findings, February 8, 2019,

[vii]David Wiley, “The Access Compromise and the 5th R,” Iterating Toward Openness (blog) March 5, 2014,

[viii] DeRosa, Robin and Rajiv Jhangiani. “Open Pedagogy” The Open Pedagogy Notebook. n.d.

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