10 Advancing Access for First-Generation College Students: OER Advocacy at UT San Antonio

DeeAnn Ivie & Carolyn Ellis

UTSA Background

The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) was founded in 1969 by the Texas Legislature in order to provide access to quality higher education for South Texans. Over the last 10 years, UTSA has expanded its vision to become a Top Tier research institution, while still preserving its founding mission to provide access.

UTSA is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), where almost 60 percent are students of color. Over 40 percent of UTSA’s undergraduate students who have graduated within the last five years are first-generation college students, with 40 percent qualifying for Pell federal grants (UTSA, 2017b).

Typically, Latino students face economic barriers more acutely than other groups starting college. In a Pew Research Study on Latinos and Education, 74 percent of Latinos surveyed who had a high school diploma or less stated that the reason they could not pursue higher education was because they needed to support their families (Lopez, 2009). College costs can range from equal to many times greater than the average median net worth of Latino households (Dowd & For, 2012). From 2005 to 2009, Latino households’ net worth shrank from $18,359 to $6,325 (Kochhar, Fry, & Taylor, 2011). During the same period, tuition and fees for a four-year public university rose to $6,695—approximately the same amount as the average Latino family’s net worth (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010).

Over the next 20 years, the vast majority of growth in the student population in South Texas will be driven by Latinos (Greater Texas Foundation et al., 2011). The success of the region is increasingly becoming inextricably tied to their success. As an HSI, UTSA has a significant role to play in the continued growth and development of the South Texas region.

Providing Access to Quality Education in South Texas

In December 2011, UTSA kicked off an initiative to address two of the biggest indicators of student success: student retention and graduation rates. Out of the freshman cohort admitted to UTSA in fall 2011, only 15.2 percent graduated within four years (UTSA, 2017a). Research has shown that HSIs have lower retention and completion rates when compared with their non-HSI peers (Contreras & Contreras, 2015; New America, 2015).

UTSA set a goal to improve the four-year graduation rate to 25 percent for the 2021 freshman cohort (UTSA, 2011). The Graduation Rate Improvement Plan (GRIP) identified numerous ways to address the issues of lower graduation and retention rates, including streamlining the curriculum, financial incentives to finish on time, expansion of faculty and student support, as well as raising admission standards (UTSA, 2011).

More recently, UTSA has refined its approach to addressing graduation and retention rates, with a new initiative called CLASS: Coordinated and Linked Approach to Student Success. The new approach includes strategies focused on integrated approaches to student support services, including advising, onboarding, leadership development, financial aid, and enhancing the first-year experience (UTSA Office of the Provost, 2016). One of the innovative efforts to support the financial aid needs of students is the offering of micro-retention grants, where small amounts of funds can be the difference between staying in school or dropping out (UTSA Office of the Provost, 2016).

OER as a Strategy for Student Success

Across the nation, there have been efforts made by numerous community colleges, specifically through the Achieving the Dream Network, to construct entire degree programs using only OER materials. These efforts build on the success of institutions like Tidewater Community College’s Z-Degree program, which has created an Associate of Science degree program with no textbook costs (Tidewater Community College, 2015).

UTSA’s leadership selected Georgia State as an exemplar institution due to its incredible success raising graduation rates and its diverse student population. There have been many discussions about how we can adopt Georgia State’s best practices and create new strategies to fuel student success. OER is one of many identified supporting strategies that can help us reach our student success goals.

In 2003, Georgia State had an institutional graduation rate of 32 percent, with underserved minority student populations having an even lower rate (Georgia State University, 2016). Through multiple strategic efforts, they have since increased their graduation rate to 58 percent in 2016 for their students of color. Although not one of the major strategies for student success, Georgia State and the University System of Georgia (USG) have funded efforts to promote OER as a means to reduce the financial burden on students. Affordable Learning Georgia is a statewide program offering financial incentives (grants), coordination between institutions, and online resources that support OER growth and sustainability. Numerous studies and data support a positive correlation between students’ overall financial situation and their likelihood of persisting and graduating (Alon, 2007; Hossler, Ziskin, Gross, Kim, & Cekic, 2009; Tinto, 2004).

USG piloted a new open textbook for US History I in the fall of 2013, and found a 6 percent increase in retention when compared with the same semester the previous year (Affordable Learning Georgia, 2014). Interestingly, an even greater improvement was seen in grades. Successful completion of the course (grades A, B, or C) increased from 56 percent to 84 percent when using the open textbook.

The Potential for OER at UTSA

The cost of textbooks has increased at a rate of over 80 percent in the last 10 years (Senack, 2014). Students have felt that increase acutely, resulting in many students forgoing purchasing the textbook or buying a used, older edition. In a survey we conducted of 568 students who used OER in our grant pilot program, many alternatives to purchasing their textbooks were identified: not purchasing textbooks at all, renting, borrowing from friends, or using library copies. Given UTSA’s status as an HSI as well as the economic challenges faced by our students, the adoption of OER seemed like a strong strategy in support of increased retention and graduation rates. It has been established that there is a clear link between family income level, college retention, and graduation. The National Center for Education Studies report, Placing College Graduation Rates in Context, concluded that across universities with similar attributes, those that enroll larger numbers of low-income students tend to have lower graduation rates (2006). OER is one way that we can alleviate the financial strain that students bear when faced with rising textbook costs; we hope it will contribute positively to student retention at UTSA.

In response to the cost of textbooks and students’ financial limitations, over the past six years the UTSA Libraries has purchased textbooks actively being used in classes for circulation in reserves. Our reserves circulation is primarily driven by textbooks, with circulation increasing 28 percent from 2013 to 2016, while circulation of other reserve materials overall falling by 30 percent during the same period (UTSA Libraries, 2015). Although providing print textbooks is a helpful service for students, check out periods are limited to two hours, and there is often a wait list during peak times of the semester. OER present us with a better alternative—textbooks that are completely accessible at any given time, from anywhere.

UTSA Faculty

As of fall 2016, UTSA employed 1,396 faculty with 41 percent tenured, 15 percent tenure-track, and 44 percent non–tenure-track (UTSA Office of Institutional Research, 2016, p. 2). Though total enrolment is hovering at just under 30,000, the campus has a student to professor ratio of 22:1 (UTSA, n.d.).

UTSA Libraries’ 11 research and instruction librarians provide support for faculty and students in the 165 degree programs across the university: University College; College of Architecture, Construction and Planning; College of Business; College of Education and Human Development; College of Engineering; College of Liberal and Fine Arts; Honors College; College of Public Policy; College of Sciences, and the Graduate School (UTSA, 2018).

The UTSA Libraries’ subject librarians partner regularly with faculty in their academic departments to support teaching by: tailoring library sessions to courses and assignments; creating online tutorials and research guides; providing copyright support and guidance on fair use; and providing innovative teaching spaces for class sessions throughout the semester. In addition to teaching support, librarians are heavily involved in events sponsored by their academic departments, including beginning of semester departmental orientations, student welcome events, and graduate student orientation. Librarians also maintain a steady stream of communication with faculty in their areas to build the collection in support of faculty research and new academic programs through new acquisitions in all formats.

UTSA librarians realized in the earliest stages of OER exploration just how crucial faculty engagement would be to the successful adoption and growth of OER at UTSA. Faculty are the key decision-makers when it comes to textbook selection, which can greatly influence a student’s success or failure in a course. UTSA subject librarians have cultivated lasting relationships with faculty in their areas and have a great foundation on which to build current and future conversations with faculty interested in growing OER at UTSA. Strong relationships with the Faculty Center and Center for Teaching and Learning Services, and a constant presence at faculty events, have supported new faculty–librarian partnerships and reinvigorated existing ones.

Grant Program

At the writing of this chapter, the UTSA Libraries had completed the first grant cycle (2015–16), collected student and faculty feedback on the OER trials, and had awarded the second round of grants (2016–17). Even though our program is still in the beginning stages, we’ve continued to refine it and are constantly evaluating and incorporating new strategies for growing OER adoption.

During the first funding cycle, the Libraries offered $1,500 mini-grants for faculty interested in adopting OER for their courses. The mini-grants were funded solely from the library’s budget, and we were able to award a total of $7,500 to five faculty for using OER in their courses; these five faculty are currently featured on our website (UTSA Libraries, 2017).

Though we recognize there are many other incentives at play in order for faculty to adopt and integrate OER into their courses, librarians offered mini-grants to fast-track OER adoption in order to make an immediate impact on our students. Although textbooks are only a fraction of total college costs, every dollar saved can be used by our students to meet other needs. Our thinking was that once the program took off, the push for integrating OER into more courses would come from other faculty that had adopted OER with success, students that have successfully completed OER courses, and, finally, campus administrative and student leaders advocating for OER adoption.

Because many of the courses we were targeting are taught by adjuncts and sometimes graduate and PhD students, the only requirement the library imposed, as far as faculty status, is that the applicants be the instructor of record for the course. To encourage collaboration and provide additional support, applicants were also required to partner with their subject librarian in order to identify and locate potential OER for their course. Adoption of low- or no-cost materials for the class, completion of an adoption impact report, including student and faculty feedback on the OER used, and participation in a Faculty Center/UTSA Libraries workshop rounded out the requirements (UTSA Libraries, 2017).

Grants were announced on February 1st (with an application deadline of March 13th) and were promoted on websites, social media, emails, and newsletters owned and managed by UTSA Libraries and the Faculty Center. Librarians scheduled a workshop with Nicole Finkbeiner and Kedrienne Day of OpenStax for February 29th in the Faculty Center: Leaping into Open Educational Resources: The Virtues of Free Textbooks (UTSA Libraries, 2016c). In addition to the OpenStax reps, faculty that had successfully integrated OER into courses were invited to speak on a panel and were also encouraged to apply for the grants. One faculty panelist invited a student from a past class where an open textbook was used so that attendees could hear his perspective. Approximately 20 faculty attended.

For the 2016 funding cycle, we received 11 applications and ranked them on application quality, number of students impacted, textbook cost, and drop/fail/withdraw rate for the course. During the 2017 application round, we received three times the number of applications received in 2016, so the ranking and selection process became more complex. We developed a scoring system based on textbook cost, enrollment, drop/fail/withdraw rate for the course, and whether the applicant’s course would increase OER adoption; this became a significant factor because a good number of the 2017 applications were OER continuations. Our campus bookstore textbook adoption date for the fall is mid-April, so we notified all applicants by April 1st.

For the 2016–17 funding cycle, we retained the same grant structure but made some adjustments. In order to make the highest impact, we offered, in addition to individual grants, departmental grants, defined as collaboration by two or more instructors to adopt OER in all sections of a course. We asked applicants to provide the new price for their current textbook and to explain how they would advocate for OER adoption to their peers. In order to coordinate an earlier meeting between the grant recipient and their librarian and to also establish firmer spending guidelines, librarians and UTSA Libraries’ Dean’s Office staff drafted a document that recipients were to sign and return within 30 days of award notification; see Appendix 5. In addition to defining expectations, librarians also provided boilerplate language for integration into the course syllabus. The purpose of the language was to promote awareness among enrolled students of the use of OER for the coming semester and to spur a conversation between the professor and the students about OER. The language provides clarification on what might be an otherwise unfamiliar concept for students and also helps provide context for the end-of-semester OER survey.

Program Launch and Barriers to Adoption

UTSA librarians began exploring OER at the end of fall 2015. With increased change in our university and library environment in recent years, we created a process to streamline any projects that have a university-wide impact or that would involve multiple stakeholders, internal or external. The initial stage of any new project, including OER, starts with drafting of a project plan that outlines the project scope, goals, stakeholders, and identifies an implementation timeline.

We also had initial conversations with OpenStax, with whom we started an official partnership. As an OpenStax partner, we participated in monthly calls with other schools in the same cohort, sharing tactics for growing OER adoption at our respective institutions. Monthly partner discussions centered on the crafting of institutional strategic plans, adoption tracking, and sharing strategies for overcoming adoption roadblocks. OpenStax membership has also helped us stay abreast of new developments in the OER landscape through a partner distribution list, and direct connection with one of the leading OER developers in the United States. As we now enter the intermediary stages of adoption and begin formulating a blueprint for a statewide OER initiative, OpenStax continues to provide structure, support, and grounding, helping to ease the inevitable uncertainty that arises when exploring uncharted territory.

After just a few meetings with OpenStax and project stakeholders, we were excited about the potential for OER at UTSA. We realized we had a lot of work to do in order to achieve the goals laid out in our project plan. During these initial explorations, we uncovered roadblocks and barriers, some expected and some unexpected, to faculty OER adoption. These discoveries shed light on issues faculty face when selecting and adapting teaching resources, and have given us increased insight into our teaching faculty and the struggles they face. Some barriers were unearthed through our own explorations of OER repositories while others surfaced in one-on-one and group conversations with faculty.

The first and most obvious barrier to OER adoption is awareness and discovery by faculty. A 2016 Babson Research Group Survey found that while faculty awareness of OER has increased 20 percent from 2015, adoption and use among faculty is still low with only 6.6 percent of faculty reporting they are “Very aware” and 19 percent of faculty report being “Aware” of OER (Allen & Seaman, 2016). Additionally, 49 percent of faculty report “there are not enough resources for my subject”; 48 percent report it is “too hard to find what I need”; 45 percent report “there is no comprehensive catalog of resources” (Allen & Seaman, 2016). While we have yet to roll out a university-wide faculty survey on OER awareness, discussions with faculty reveal that their knowledge of OpenStax has increased since the initial stages of our program, while awareness of other OER providers remains low.

While numerous OER repositories exist, there is not a comprehensive single search for OER, so UTSA librarians mine repositories separately in order to successfully match OER to courses. Merlot II (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), a California State University initiative, is UTSA Librarians first go-to for OER discovery since it compiles OER from many repositories and features an ISBN search that retrieves more accurate matches. UTSA librarians will often point faculty to this, but the tool is not perfect, and it can still take time to sort through results to find viable options. To help overcome this barrier, UTSA librarians created two OER guides for the disciplines and programs at UTSA, organized by format: textbooks, courses/ancillary materials, videos, and a search for ebooks at the UTSA Libraries (UTSA Libraries, 2016a, 2016b). When we receive a request for materials from a faculty member, we check our guides first to see if that course has already been matched. If not, we do a deep dive into repositories and develop a custom list of potential OER, including ebooks in our collection when no viable OER exist.

Lack of ancillary materials has been identified by UTSA faculty and librarians as another barrier to OER adoption and growth. While thousands of OER are available and searchable through the various repositories, there is a much lower number of open textbooks neatly outfitted with ancillary materials that integrate seamlessly with learning management systems. Meanwhile, traditional textbook publishers have this market cornered and offer an appealing package for our overburdened faculty. To overcome this, UTSA Libraries has initiated conversations with UTSA’s bookstore managers. UTSA’s bookstore is Follett-owned and features Lumen Courses in its IncludeEd faculty textbook discoverability tool, many of which pair well with OpenStax textbooks. We are also heartened by the recent release of OpenStax Tutor Beta and the gaps it will fill in the OER ancillary landscape and are sharing these tools with faculty that have adopted OpenStax texts.

In spring 2016, UTSA librarians began meeting with faculty, both in departmental meetings and one-on-one, to advocate for OER adoption. During these meetings, we learned that faculty perceptions of OER vary, and these perceptions influence other faculty’s willingness to adopt. Some of the hesitancy may be attributed to the availability of quality OER for the discipline. In some cases, faculty that have authored or edited textbooks and have received royalties can be opposed to OER for personal reasons. To overcome these barriers, UTSA librarians have continued one-on-one conversations with interested faculty and have hosted annual workshops that highlight the virtues of free textbooks. Though initial conversations with academic departments revealed hesitations about OER adoption, attitudes have shifted since our program’s inception. We even had one department chair that was initially resistant submit an application to our grant program; he now plans to continue using OER in his course indefinitely. These conversations with faculty have also reminded librarians that the decision to choose a certain textbook over another is not always made by the individual faculty member teaching the course, but instead by textbook committees. While some departments allow instructors greater academic freedom in select learning materials, others employ a committee structure. We quickly realized that a hybrid communication strategy for our grant program would be essential in order to reach all levels of faculty at UTSA.

Ultimately, the largest factor influencing OER adoption is part of a much bigger conversation: how do faculty use their textbooks; how much of the test material comes from the textbook; and how do faculty communicate with their students about their expectations and recommendations for using course learning materials? Faculty that have been using a textbook for a number of years that rely heavily on textbook publisher ancillary materials will require more persuasion in order to transition to OER. Likewise, faculty that test primarily from lecture notes may be more easily convinced to transition due to decreased or no reliance on textbook publishers’ out-of-the-box tools.

Strategies for overcoming these barriers and more are all tackled in a Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition ( SPARC, a division of the Association of College and Research Libraries dedicated to advancing the open agenda) adaptation of an OER Mythbusting document currently in the works. UTSA Librarians are using this document in conversations with OER-resistant faculty and plan to incorporate it into the faculty adoption toolkit on our website.

Communication Strategies and Advocacy

OER advocacy requires consistent and comprehensive effort. Our work has been impactful and far-reaching due to multiple factors: the development of an OER communication strategy and timeline, leveraging our campus partnerships to get the word out, and our research and education librarians’ direct outreach to faculty. At UTSA, both tenure and non-tenure faculty teach high-enrollment courses that we are targeting for OER course transformation. Considering this, we worked with our communications director to develop tailored messages for targeted venues in order to achieve the widest reach.

After the beginning of semester rush in fall 2016, we contacted the Office of the Registrar to get a list of the 100 courses with the highest enrollment in order to begin the OER matching process. These matches would be incorporated into custom emails to all course instructors and paired with the spring grant application deadline and OER workshop registration. Librarians worked intensely to match open textbooks, ancillary materials, and media to high-enrollment courses in November and December 2016, one of our quietest times of the year. The goal of the matching served many purposes: to alleviate OER discovery work for faculty, to demonstrate that matches exist for courses, and to pique adoption interest. Since lack of awareness is a major hurdle to adoption, providing matches seemed like an easy way to get faculty over the initial hump, and it worked. We received applications from several faculty that were direct emailed, and even if they weren’t completely happy with the provided matches, they wanted to know about other options.

UTSA Libraries set the application deadline for the 2017 funding cycle to March 20th, so all communication centered on this. Having produced a great deal of administrative and promotional materials during the 2016 cycle that didn’t cleanly fit into either of our OER LibGuides, coupled with the realization that a space for recognizing our diligent OER adopters would be needed, we began developing an OER website. Librarians met with our communications director and our web designer, presented a draft of text for the OER website, and finalized the page design. On the cusp of a major website redesign, we opted for a practical and basic layout that we could refine over time. UTSA Libraries launched its OER website early spring 2017; the website highlights our faculty OER adopters, provides background on student success initiatives at UTSA with a segue into OER adoption, and serves a starting point for faculty interested in transitioning courses to OER (UTSA Libraries, 2017).

Once the website launched, we used it as the basis for our communications with faculty. Though we did not survey faculty applicants in order to determine which strategy was the most effective, this is something we may do in the future. See Appendix 1 for our Adopt a Free Textbook communication timeline in its entirety and succeeding appendices for sample communication pieces.

Campus Partners

Developing lasting partner relationships is critical to the success of any OER program. Partner collaborations make OER an institutional effort, increasing support for all aspects of OER discovery, adoption, and adaptation for the classroom.

One of the most obvious and important partners in an OER initiative is the campus bookstore. The bookstore provides faculty with the discovery source for textbooks, as well as serving as the de facto place students go for their class materials.

In order to ensure OER textbooks are presented alongside traditional textbooks for course selection, we worked with our Follett campus bookstore to include all major OER providers in their online textbook selection tool. The library has been granted access to this tool, so that we can see what our faculty see, which allows us to better promote OER through familiar channels. To facilitate communication between faculty, the bookstore, and students, we are sharing OER courses with the bookstore; enrolled students may also opt for a print copy of these OER texts.

In addition to facilitating discoverability for faculty when selecting textbooks, it is also important to increase visibility of OER courses for students who are registering. Because of this, the registrar’s office is another campus partner that can help promote OER on campus. UTSA uses Banner as the student information system, and students use the ASAP web interface for registration. We have been working with the registrar to include a new filter by which students can search for classes using OER (free) textbooks. This effort is still in process, but we hope to have it fully functional by fall of 2018.

Partnerships with the Faculty Center and Teaching and Learning Services are critical because they provide additional outlets for the UTSA Libraries to communicate with faculty and cultivate lasting relationships. The Faculty Center is a collaboration between UTSA’s Office of Research, Office of the Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Support, and the UTSA Libraries that exists as both a physical and virtual space to support faculty needs (The Faculty Center, n.d.). Librarians and faculty often meet in this physical space to collaborate on projects, including OER. Teaching and Learning Services, which reports directly to the Vice Provost for Faculty Academic Support, is a division charged with supporting faculty teaching. Teaching and Learning Services has been an active partner in our OER effort by inviting librarians to speak at the end-of-semester Provost’s Academy for Teaching Excellence, which is marketed to those same non-tenured faculty that teach high-enrollment courses that the library is also targeting. Partnerships between the library and both the Faculty Center and Teaching and Learning Services are critical foundations upon which we are basing current and future OER strategies and communication.

Outside Partnerships and Opportunities

While most partnerships associated with our initiative have been formed within the campus community, some significant external partnerships have also emerged. Most important is the partnership we began with OpenStax in 2016, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and promotion of OER textbooks. The OpenStax partnership has connected us with other institutions pursuing OER adoption and growth and provided not only a sounding board for barriers but also given us venues for sharing creative ideas, strategies, and models for implementation and expansion. Starting in 2015, we began participating in monthly calls with OpenStax partners, creating adoption goals for our individual institutions, and we were also added to the OpenStax email distribution list.

While OpenStax and OpenStax partner schools have been our primary external supports, we have also sought out and joined other OER communities. While not formal partnerships like our partnership with OpenStax, they have been critical in keeping us abreast of OER updates, including new open textbooks, legislative updates, information about new ancillary initiatives, and matching OER to specific courses here at UTSA. We are currently in conversations with the Open Textbook Network regarding membership and hope to take advantage of their many textbook development communities, OER tracking, staff training, and faculty workshops. Other external opportunities we have pursued are open education conferences including the SPARC Meeting on Openness in Research and Education, the National Association of College Stores’ Textbook Affordability Conference, and an array of other regional and Texas conferences. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ SPARC and Scholarly Communication discussion lists (ScholCOMM) have also been helpful for growing and sharing our expertise in this area.


During our fall 2016 pilot, we were able to impact over 568 students with our OER program. From our survey of these students, certain themes emerged after the initial analysis that helped us better understand student perspectives and have also revealed their perceptions of OER. Of the 568 respondents to our end-of-semester survey, over 40 percent relied on Pell grants and student loans for tuition and textbook costs. Data from the College Board reveals that “83% of Pell grant recipients had family incomes of $40,000 or less, including 42% with incomes of $15,000 or less” (2016, p. 28). For UTSA students, many of whom receive Pell grants, every dollar is critical. Over 40 percent of the students we surveyed are spending $400–600 per semester on textbooks, and 25 percent said they don’t purchase textbooks simply because they cannot afford them. Perhaps the strongest argument for increased OER adoption at UTSA is that over 88 percent of those surveyed rated the open textbooks used in their courses as good or better than a traditional text in helping them prepare for tests, content quality, ease of use and accessibility, and practice opportunities.

In addition to data gathered through our survey for the fall 2016 pilot, we had individual conversations with students about the use of OER in their courses and invited them to speak as part of faculty panels during “Adopt a Free Textbook” workshops. The most compelling was a student veteran’s account of his experience receiving funding for tuition and books through the G.I. Bill. He contrasted his use of an open textbook that same semester in one class with his experience in another class using a traditional textbook; since the release of funds came too late, he was forced to drop the course with a traditional textbook, but was able to successfully complete the course that used an open textbook. His account of accessibility through mobile devices and helpfulness in preparing for tests is compelling (UTSA Libraries, 2016c).

In addition to the student survey data and the individual student testimonies in our faculty workshops, we started the process of meeting with our Student Government Association (SGA) this past spring. The Academic Affairs Committee is a subgroup of UTSA’s SGA, and we learned that many of the candidates running for SGA president had free textbooks on their platforms. Our primary focus until this point was reaching out to faculty, who could be resistant, so our conversations with students were enlightening and reinvigorating. We also shared data from Student PIRGs to provide a step-by-step guide for advocacy (Student Public Interest Research Groups, 2016).

Since we are at an early stage of OER growth at UTSA, we hope to partner with our UTSA Libraries Student Engagement Committee and UTSA Student Government to plan and host a Textbook Broke event for fall 2017 or spring 2018 (Student Government Resource Center, 2014).

Measuring OER Success

Much of the research on OER has focused on how to best assess the impact of using OER in the classroom. One of the frameworks that we have found useful is the Cost, Outcomes, Usage, Perceptions (COUP) approach, developed by the Open Education Group, which evaluates OER impact using four factors (Open Ed Group, n.d.).

Given the economic challenges our students face, the most immediate benefit of using OER is the cost savings. As an institutional partner with Rice’s OpenStax College, we have been tracking metrics related to cost savings to students. In our pilot grant program, we were able to save students $94,000. As we continue to mature our grant program, and increase the number and type of grants given, we expect that number to increase significantly. One of the most compelling metrics related to cost is determining ROI (return on investment) for the grant program, comparing investment (grants awarded) to the cost savings for students. In our pilot program, we determined an ROI of 1,153 percent.

Assessing outcomes is a much more complex process. Many researchers have evaluated outcomes by looking at grades and retention in the course using OER versus the same course taught with a traditional textbook. The OER Research Hub, in their 2013–14 report found that only 27 percent of instructors surveyed found that OER improved performance in classes using OER textbooks (OER Research Hub, 2014). Hilton, Fischer, Wiley, and Williams (2016) looked at outcomes using a new measure they called course throughput rates—an aggregation of drop rates, withdrawal rates, and C or better rates. They found when looking at multiple variables together such as drop, withdrawal, and pass rates, OER has been found to significantly affect outcomes (Hilton, Fischer, Wiley, & Williams, 2016).

Another way to evaluate the success of OER materials is faculty usage. Usage is defined as the level to which faculty engage with the open content, by embellishing, deleting, inserting, and rearranging content within the open resource (Open Ed Group, n.d.). By itself, this engagement is not necessarily significant, however it was found to be a leading indicator of a few positive outcomes for students. Faculty who are more engaged with the course material are more like to be engaged in their teaching practice. The OER Research Hub reported in a survey that 92.2 percent of instructors strongly agreed or agreed that using OER “broadened their range of teaching and learning methods” (OER Research Hub, 2014). Instructors who used OER materials reported an increased level of collaboration with their colleagues.

Faculty and student perception of OER materials is an additional way to look at OER success. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess faculty and student perception of OER. A few studies with students have focused on asking them to compare OER textbooks to traditional textbooks.

Feldstein et al., in their survey of 991 students at Virginia State University School of Business, found a positive response to OER used in nine core courses (Feldstein et al., 2012). Almost 95 percent of students surveyed agreed that their open textbook was “easy to use” and 78 percent of students liked “how the textbook linked to other resources.” We also conducted a survey of 568 students who participated in four courses in our pilot OER grant program. We found 75 percent of our student respondents felt that “accessibility” was better than traditional textbooks, as well as 63 percent of students who thought that “ease of use” was better. In a survey which included eight community colleges, Bliss, Robinson, Hilton, and Wiley found that instructor perceptions of OER were mostly positive, with any negative feedback focusing on issues of quality (Bliss, Robinson, Hilton, & Wiley, 2013). In our work with faculty at UTSA, perceived poor quality was one of the major deterrents to considering adopting an OER. It is important to assess student and faculty perception of OER (both before and after using an open text) in order to understand impediments to adoption and use.

Currently, we are only using the cost factor to evaluate the success of OER, as it is the easiest attribute to assess. We do have future plans analyze the relationship between outcomes, such as grades and/or persistence, to the kind of textbook used (open, no-cost, low-cost, traditional). The factor of faculty usage is more difficult to gauge. Many of our faculty may not necessarily rearrange/change/embellish within an open textbook, but they may use the open textbook as part of a greater body of materials used for a class. These other materials may be open or low-cost. This mix and match approach still shows engagement with the materials, but not in the way defined by the COUP model. We are currently tracking faculty and staff perception of OER materials used in courses, but we have not yet begun analyzing the data. This is part of our future plan to assess our OER program.

Future Directions

We see a very positive future for OER at UTSA. The 2017 academic year wraps up our second round of grants incentivizing OER adoption, with 24 grants given—five times the number of grants awarded during our pilot year. Once fully implemented, we will see $1,063,594 in student money saved in one semester alone, with a total of $4,348,376 in student savings over four semesters. We estimated this savings using OpenStax’s methodology—the retail cost of the textbook, multiplied by the average number of students in each course, multiplied by the number of semesters.

We plan to increase our assessment activities for the grants this academic year, applying the full COUP model to more broadly determine the impact on our students and faculty. Given the larger grant program this last year, we will have a greater sample of students and faculty to study, likely to yield more meaningful results (Open Ed Group, n.d.).

Finally, over the last few months, OER has advanced at the state level. On June 6, 2017 the Governor of Texas signed a law that will establish a statewide OER grant program to be overseen by the Coordinating Board, in addition to the creation of a Texas repository for open materials. We hope this is just the beginning for coordinated, statewide progress for OER in Texas.


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Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2016). Opening the textbook: Educational resources in U.S. higher education, 2015–16. Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/openingthetextbook2016.pdf

Alon, S. (2007). The influence of financial aid in leveling group differences in graduating from elite institutions. Economics of Education Review, 26(3), 296–311.

Bliss, T. J., Robinson, T. J., Hilton, J., III, & Wiley, D. A. (2013). An OER COUP: College teacher and student perceptions of open educational resources. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2013(1), 4.

College Board. (2016). Trends in student aid 2016 (Trends in higher education series). Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2016-trends-student-aid_0.pdf

Contreras, F., & Contreras, G. J. (2015). Raising the bar for Hispanic serving institutions: An analysis of college completion and success rates. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 14(2), 151–170.

Dowd, A. C., & For, A. N. (2012). Priced out: A closer look at postsecondary affordability for Latinos. Pell Institute. Retrieved from http://education.utsa.edu/images/uploads/Priced_Out_8_5_12_(Rendon_Nora_Dowd).pdf

Feldstein, A., Martin, M., Hudson, A., Warren, K., Hilton, J., III, & Wiley, D. (2012). Open textbooks and increased student access and outcomes. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 15(2). Retrieved from http://www.eurodl.org/?p=archives&year=2012&halfyear=2&article&article=533

Georgia State University. (2016). Georgia State University campus plan update 2016. Retrieved from http://www.completegeorgia.org/georgia-state-university-campus-plan-update-2016

Greater Texas Foundation, et al. (2011). South Texas Regional Overview. Greater Texas Foundation.

Hilton, J., III, Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & William, L. (2016). Maintaining momentum toward graduation: OER and the course throughput rate. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2686

Hossler, D., Ziskin, M., Gross, J. P. K., Kim, S., & Cekic, O. (2009). Student aid and its role in encouraging persistence. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 389–425). Springer Netherlands.

Kochhar, R., Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2011). Wealth gaps rise to record highs between whites, blacks, Hispanics. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics/

Lopez, M. H. (2009). Latinos and education: Explaining the attainment gap. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/2009/10/07/latinos-and-education-explaining-the-attainment-gap/

National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Placing college graduation rates in context: How 4-year college graduation rates vary with selectivity and the size of low-income enrollment (NCES 2006-161). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007161.pdf

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New America. (2015, January 1). Hispanic-serving institutions (HISs): A background primer [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.newamerica.org/post-secondary-national-policy-institute/our-blog/hispanic-serving-institutions-hsis/

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Appendix 1: Communication Timeline for Adopt a Free Textbook Grants (2017)

  • OER Website Launched 1/9
  • Email to Dept Chairs 1/11
  • Faculty Infobites 1/13
  • Social Media Posts 1/18
  • Website story 1/25
  • Flyer emailed to Academic Affairs Admins 1/30
  • Department Chair Presentation 2/8
  • Faculty Infobites: Workshop 2/15
  • Email Broadcast to Faculty: Workshop 2/21
  • Social Media Posts 2/24
  • Librarian Emails to Faculty 2/25
  • Email Broadcast to Faculty: Workshop 2/27
  • OER Workshop 2/27
  • Faculty InfoBites 3/1: Grant Application
  • Social Media Posts 3/6: Grant Application
  • Email Broadcast to Faculty 3/6

Appendix 2: Library Dean Email to Department Chairs

Subject: Faculty Grants Available Fall 2017

As part of UTSA’s efforts to increase student success, retention and completion, the UTSA Libraries has partnered with the Teaching and Learning Center to offer individual and departmental grants to faculty who pilot a free textbook in a course this fall.

The grant application deadline is March 20, 2017. There are two types available:

  • Individual: $1,000 for a faculty member to use a free textbook in one of their courses.
  • Departmental: $1,500–$7,000 (calculated based on number of students impacted) for faculty to adopt a free textbook in a course across the entire department.

Why are we offering these grants? All too often, the high cost of textbooks is a reason students delay or discontinue their educational path. By using free, high quality textbooks, UTSA can make great strides in higher education affordability for our students.

I hope you will visit our Open Educational Resources website to learn more. You’ll find a video showing what UTSA students have to say about textbooks, and a plethora of research on the benefits of using free textbooks on our guide to free textbooks that most closely align with high enrollment courses in your discipline.

We hope you’ll encourage faculty in your department to apply for the grant! Please don’t hesitate to contact me or your departmental librarian with any questions you may have.

Appendix 3: Adopt a Free Textbook Flyer

UTSA Libraries - Adopt a Free Textbook Flyer

Appendix 4: Adopt a Free Textbook Social Media Posts

Free Textbooks Social Media post

Appendix 5: Adopt a Free Textbook Grant Spending Requirements & Reimbursement Guidelines

Please read, complete, sign, and return to DeeAnn Ivie by 05/01/2017.

Grantee Expectations

For your course, you will be expected to:

  • Collaborate with a librarian to identify a free textbook (or other open materials).
  • Adopt a free textbook, replacing the primary, traditional textbook and incorporate the following text and OER logo into your course syllabus:
Open educational resources (OER) are textbooks and learning materials that are available at no cost to students, accessible from mobile devices, and available from class day one. Research has shown that OER can improve student engagement and course outcomes. This course is part of UTSA Libraries’ OER initiative, a collaboration between your professor and UTSA Libraries to encourage faculty adoption of free and low-cost instructional materials into courses.
  • Complete a course impact report that includes a final syllabus, assessment, student evaluations of the textbook, analysis and future plans based on findings, and anonymous data on grades, including D/F/W rates.
  • Share experience using a free textbook with colleagues by participating in a free textbook workshop as a panelist.
  • Commit to adopting a free textbook for a minimum of four semesters, including the pilot semester.

Recipients of an Individual Grant will adopt a free textbook in one section (or more) of a course.

Recipients of a Departmental Grant will adopt a free textbook across at least three instructors teaching the same course OR all instructors teaching the same course.

Grant Spending Guidelines

As a recipient of the OER Free Textbook Grant, I agree that I will abide by the following spending requirements:

  1. Professional travel expenses (airfare, conference registration, per diem)
  2. Equipment/technology that directly supports teaching. Equipment and/or materials purchased become property of your academic department.
  3. Funding for teaching assistants to develop ancillary and support materials for OER course (for each student assistant, a maximum number of hours needs to be stipulated so that the student wages do not exceed grant funds).

Funds received by grant recipients may not be used for personal purchases or as a salary supplement.

Funds must be fully expended by May 1, 2018.

1. What do you plan on using grant funds for? Please select and describe all that apply.

___ Conference travel/professional development

Estimated Cost


___Equipment/materials (Note: all equipment purchased with grant funds are property of your UTSA department)

Estimated Cost


___Development of ancillary and support materials by students

Estimated Cost


2. Who is your departmental admin?


Phone Number


Print, sign, and date.

Printed Name (primary faculty applicant)





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OER: A Field Guide for Academic Librarians | Editor's Cut Copyright © 2018 by Christy Allen; Nicole Allen; Jean Amaral; Alesha Baker; Chelle Batchelor; Sarah Beaubien; Geneen E. Clinkscales; William Cross; Rebel Cummings-Sauls; Kirsten N. Dean; Carolyn Ellis; David Francis; Emily Frank; Teri Gallaway; Arthur G. Green; Sarah Hare; John Hilton III; Cinthya Ippoliti; DeeAnn Ivie; Rajiv S. Jhangiani; Michael LaMagna; Anne Langley; Jonathan Lashley; Shannon Lucky; Jonathan Miller; Carla Myers; Julie Reed; Michelle Reed; Lillian Hogendoorn; Heather M. Ross; Matthew Ruen; Jeremy Smith; Cody Taylor; Jen Waller; Anita Walz; Andrew Wesolek; Andrea Wright; Brady Yano; and Stacy Zemke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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