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Don’t Sacrifice the Good for the Perfect: Focusing on OER versus Zero Textbook Cost

Curriculum Planning and Development Spotlight on OER

Don’t Sacrifice the Good for the Perfect: Focusing on OER versus Zero Textbook Cost

This article is part of our August 2020 spotlight on open educational resources. Click here to read the introduction and view the other articles in the series.

Many campuses are making small and large moves to lower textbook costs for students while increasing access to learning materials. Here we will discuss various options for achieving those goals, as well as potential impacts on access and use.

As you embark on program development or explore what may be available to your campus, a flood of branded programs and initialisms are in your future: “inclusive access”, OER, ZTC, and others. These terms are more than just types of programs; they affect access to resources and what students and faculty can do with resources. Here we explore these terms through the lenses of students and faculty who will be using these materials.


  • Inclusive access: Bundling of textbooks from commercial textbook publishers that typically charge a per-semester fee in exchange for access to digital versions of the assigned textbooks. Institutions often partner with one commercial publisher, faculty then select course textbooks from that publisher’s catalog, and students access only the materials assigned for a specific course. Students are charged a fee for access by the semester and do not maintain access to that resource for the duration of their studies.
  • Open educational resources (OER): Learning materials, including textbooks, that are perpetually available for free and able to be modified and distributed. Students access materials digitally through learning management systems and the web and have continued access to those resources for the duration of their studies.
  • Zero textbook cost (ZTC): A course that has no textbook costs associated with taking the course. The course might not require a textbook, or the textbook could be provided at zero direct cost to the student via OER, offered through an institutionally supported collection, or made freely available from the copyright holder. Students do not directly pay a textbook fee for a semester and may not have continued access to that resource for the duration of their studies.

All OER is ZTC, but not all ZTC is OER!

Student access

Considering the dimensions of cost and access, inclusive access programs typically mean a student pays a fee to access a semester’s worth of textbooks and materials. The fee ensures access to the textbooks for the semester. Often institutions will bundle courses to reduce costs to students. These programs are inferior to OER and ZTC programs as inclusive access has a direct student cost. Additionally, these programs typically provide access to the textbook only while the student is enrolled in the course. If a student needs to remember a grammar rule or a basic chemical compound, they no longer have access to the materials from the previous semester that would help them answer those questions.

From a student perspective, both OER and ZTC courses are equivalent as they have zero direct cost. For a course adopting OER and ZTC materials, students pay no direct textbook access fees. On average, this saves students about $90 per course.

From an institutional perspective, ZTC courses have institutional costs when faculty adopt materials from library-supported collections. The library budget covers the access costs, but students do no pay a direct fee for access.

From an access and use perspective, the programs offer different experiences for students. During the semester both OER and ZTC courses provide similar day-one access to materials for students. Where OER and ZTC differ are in what can be done with that access and in long-term reuse.

OER courses allow students to reuse the textbooks and other materials to create new resources (study guides, handouts, etc.). OER also provide students with forever access to materials, much like the trusty physical books lining many of our walls (not used constantly but there when we need them). When students download OER materials or save the links, perpetual access allows them to revisit materials from introductory courses when they are in upper-division ones. With OER materials, students can maintain access to that material long beyond their university experience. ZTC courses that use institutionally supported resources may not provide students that same long-term access. Library budgets change, as do the fees associated with database access. Publishing companies change where their material may be accessed through university databases. Most importantly, student access could go away when they leave the university or the institution might stop purchasing various collections over time.

Faculty access

From a faculty perspective, both OER and ZTC courses are similar in their access, costs, and hurdles for implementation. The main differences are what faculty can do with the materials and potential long-term access implications.

With both OER and ZTC, faculty connect students with high-quality free resources on the first day of classes. Faculty using OER have the ability to adapt and change the materials to meet their needs, but they don’t typically have that ability with non-OER ZTC materials. Faculty using non-OER ZTC materials have to be concerned about those materials’ long-term availability: Will the copyright holder stop making the materials freely available? Will the institution stop paying for access to the collection of materials I need? How will I adapt if those materials are no longer available?

OER provides forever access to materials!

Programs and initiatives

When building programs and initiatives on campus, OER constitute the best way to decrease student costs while increasing student access to learning materials. This doesn’t mean OER are always the best solution for all courses, nor that open resources are the immediate and only goal when working to reduce cost of attendance.

While there is a large and ever-growing collection of OER, courses are less likely to have OER readily available the more specialized they are. In those instances, asking faculty to use OER would likely result in failure. Creating a ZTC course may be more feasible and generates many of the same benefits for students. Since ZTC is a larger envelope that contains OER, there are many more materials that can be used as ZTC than as OER. ZTC courses can cobble together any combination of OER, other zero-cost resources, and institutionally supported resources to provide an experience that for most students will be nearly identical to the OER experience. Even with ZTC, some materials may be available beyond the university experience connecting coursework to post-graduation life.

OER are worth the long-term investment for both students and the institution because by default they always provide free access and can always be updated. In the short term, ZTC provides a lower barrier to entry for many courses that may not have readily available OER.

You needn’t pick only one; both OER and ZTC go hand-in-hand toward achieving textbook goals. Different courses will have different needs, but understanding the additional benefits of OER can lead to building a foundational structure that has long-term potential. Initiatives that not only incentivize faculty to adopt OER but also allow faculty to incorporate ZTC as the standard set the expectation for achieving OER best practices while also meeting the needs of faculty for achieving effective-practices for decreasing student costs and increasing student access.

Acknowledge the perfect of OER, but don’t sacrifice the core goals of increasing student access and decreasing student costs by insisting on perfection when a perfectly good ZTC works for now.

Daniel R. Albert, PhD, is an assistant professor of chemistry at Millersville University.

A. Nicole Pfannenstiel, PhD, is an assistant professor of digital media in English and interim director of the Center for Academic Excellent at Millersville University.


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