2 What Does the Research Say About OER?

John Hilton III

The high cost of textbooks is a substantial challenge in America’s higher education. A survey of 22,906 post-secondary students in Florida reported that 67 percent of students went without a required textbook because of high prices. Severe academic consequences are often a direct result of limited access to the necessary resources; this same study noted that deficiency of learning materials caused 37.6 percent of students to earn a poor grade, and 19.8 percent to fail a course. High textbook prices also lengthen the time to graduation. Approximately half the students surveyed stated that they take fewer courses because of the high cost of materials; moreover, textbook prices cause one quarter of students to drop classes (Florida Virtual Campus, 2016).

While college students may be thought to be the only audience affected by these high costs, expensive educational materials also affect taxpayers. Some student loans costs, as well as money used to purchase textbooks for public elementary and secondary schools, pull from the pockets of taxpayers. Furthermore, high textbook costs can keep schools from purchasing new materials, leaving many students learning from outdated books, and classrooms lacking a sufficient number of textbooks.

Open educational resources (OER) are one solution to the problem of high textbook costs. The term “open educational resources” was developed in the 2002 UNESCO Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries. OER are educational resources that are (1) freely available to all people, and (2) openly licensed in such a way that authorize reuse, and in many instances, remix and redistribution.

Over the past 15 years, there has been extensive growth and development of OER (Wiley, Bliss, & McEwen, 2014). A large variety of OER have been generated, many of which are high quality and contain sufficiently robust content to replace traditional textbooks. Creative Commons licenses provide the required legal clearances to freely share, modify, and reuse OER (Bissell, 2009; D’Antoni, 2009; Hewlett, 2013). Several sources, such as the Minnesota Open Textbook Library (open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/) provide links to and insightful reviews of open materials. The utilization of OER is becoming more widespread. These resources have been used in hundreds of colleges and universities internationally, including Harvard University, Ohio State University, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), Purdue University, University of British Columbia, and the University of Calgary.1


Despite the widespread belief that freely available educational materials must be less effective or of lower quality than expensive, published materials, research demonstrates otherwise. Between 2002 and 2015 there were only 16 efficacy and perceptions studies related to OER. Hilton (2016) synthesized these 16 reports to investigate the usefulness and/or perceptions of OER. Since that time, as of August 2017, 17 additional peer-reviewed studies have been published regarding higher education OER efficacy and/or perceptions. This illustrates a rapid rise in research related to OER efficacy and perceptions, with more published studies in the past two years than the previous 15. I next summarize the research that has been done to date.

Research Between 2002 and 2015

Of the studies reviewed in Hilton (2016), nine investigated OER efficacy and the relation of OER influence to learning outcomes, providing a collective 46,149 student participants. Only one of these nine studies conveyed that the OER use was associated with lower learning outcomes at a higher rate than with positive outcomes; however, even this study illustrated that in general, OER use resulted in non-significant differences. Three of the nine studies had results that significantly favored OER over traditional textbooks, another three revealed no significant difference and two did not discuss the statistical significance of their findings.

Hilton (2016) investigates the opinions of 4,510 students and faculty members surveyed across nine studies regarding perceptions of OER. Not once did students or faculty state that OER were less likely than commercial textbooks to aid student learning. Overall, roughly half of students and faculty noted OER to be analogous to traditional resources, a sizeable minority considered them to be superior, and a smaller minority found them to be inferior.

Efficacy Research Between 2015 and 2017

In addition to the research just summarized, there were eight OER efficacy studies published between late 2015 and August 2017, containing a total of 108,809 students. The number of participants, in some respects, is deceptively large, as some of the studies (e.g., Hilton, Fischer, Wiley, and Williams, 2016; Wiley, Williams, DeMarte, and Hilton, 2016) contained large student populations but only a small portion of students in these studies used OER. Regardless, the overall results across these eight studies imply that students do as well, or better, when utilizing OER.

Wiley et al. (2016) observed that students at Tidewater Community College (n=23,985) were less likely to drop courses when utilizing OER. Although the difference was small (0.8%), it was statistically significant. Similarly, Hilton et al. (2016), who reviewed two later semesters of OER adoption at Tidewater Community College (n=45,237) found that when considering drop, withdrawal, and passing rates, students who used OER were 6 percent more likely to complete the class with credit than their peers who did not use OER.

Ozdemir and Hendricks (2017) examined 51 e-portfolios written by faculty in the state of California about their use of open textbooks. For the 55 percent of the 51 faculty who assessed the impact of adopting an open textbook on student learning outcomes, all reported that the outcomes remained the same or were enriched. Chiorescu (2017) studied 606 students at a university in Georgia across four semesters and noted that students were either as or more likely to pass the class when OER was used; furthermore, significantly fewer students withdrew when OER were implemented.

Croteau (2017) surveyed 24 separate data sets involving 3,847 college students in Georgia and found no significant differences in student pass rates, completion rates, or final exam scores before and after implementing OER. Hendricks, Reinsberg, and Rieger (2017) found that students in a physics course at the University of British Columbia (n=811) performed equivalently well in terms of final exams scores and grade distributions whether they used OER or commercial textbooks. Grewe and Davis (2017) studied 146 students who attended Northern Virginia Community College. They found a moderate correlation between OER use and student achievement. Winitzky-Stephens and Pickavance (2017) assessed a large-scale OER adoption across 37 different courses in several different general education subjects at Salt Lake Community College (n=34,126). The multilevel models used by the authors revealed no significant difference between courses using OER and traditional textbooks for continuing students, and a small benefit for new students.

Perceptions Research Between 2015 and 2017

There were 12 OER perceptions studies published between late 2015 and August 2017, involving 2,160 students and faculty. Two of these studies also included efficacy data, and thus were also included as efficacy studies in the previous section.

Five studies investigated faculty perceptions of OER. Ozdemir and Hendricks’ (2017) study of 51 e-portfolios written by faculty in the state of California who used open textbooks found that a strong majority reported that the quality of the open textbooks was as good or better than that of traditional textbooks. Moreover, 40 of the 51 portfolios contained data about students’ attitudes towards the open textbooks; only 15 percent of these e-portfolios reported any negative student comments. Pitt (2015) surveyed 126 educators who utilized OER. Roughly two thirds reported that using OER facilitated meeting diverse learners’ needs and perceived greater pupil satisfaction using OER. Jung, Bauer, and Heaps (2017) surveyed faculty members who used OpenStax textbooks and found that 81 percent believed OpenStax textbooks are of the same or higher quality as commercial textbooks. Fischer, Ernst, and Mason (2017) examined 416 online reviews of 121 open textbooks and observed that reviewers commonly gave open textbooks high ratings (a median of 4.5/5 overall rating). Delimont, Turtle, Bennett, Adhikari, and Lindshield (2016) surveyed 524 learners in 13 different courses at Kansas State University concerning their use of OER, as well as 13 teachers. Students regarded the OER as high quality and favored OER over purchasing textbooks. Of the 13 faculty members interviewed, 12 preferred teaching with OER.

Furthermore, several studies directly questioned students how their experience with OER compared with commercial textbooks. Hendricks, Reinsberg, and Rieger (2017) considered survey answers from 143 students who used OER in a physics course at the University of British Columbia and noted that 93 percent of respondents reported their open textbook was the same or better than textbooks in other courses. Similarly, Illowsky, Hilton, Whiting, and Ackerman (2016) surveyed 325 students in California who used two versions of an open statistics textbook. They found that 90 percent of students rated the OER as good or better than the textbooks in their other courses. Jhangiani and Jhangiani (2017) surveyed 320 college students in British Columbia registered in courses with an open textbook. These students positively rated open textbooks, with 96 percent of survey participants stating that they were at or above average. Cooney (2017) studied 67 individuals enrolled in health courses at New York City College of Technology. She found that over 80 percent of 67 students surveyed rated the OER as being better than a traditional textbook, with an additional 16 percent saying it was similar quality. Coleman-Prisco (2017) surveyed 16 students, five of whom were later interviewed regarding their experiences with OER. She found that 25 percent of participants felt OER were worse than traditional learning materials; 37.5 percent stated they were equal, and 37.5 percent said they were better.

Vojtech and Grissett (2017) explored a novel approach to student perceptions by examining how students perceive hypothetical faculty members who use open textbooks. They find that students rated faculty who assign an open textbook to be kinder, as well as more encouraging and creative. Although the study was intended to have open textbooks be the only difference between the hypothetical professors that students rated, only 14 percent students attributed their belief that the professor who used OER was kinder, more creative, etc. to the prices of textbooks.

Watson, Domizi, and Clouser (2017) surveyed 1,299 students at the University of Georgia who used the OpenStax biology textbook (an open textbook). These students were directly asked to “rate the quality of the OpenStax textbook as compared to other textbooks they had used.” The majority of students (64%) reported that the OpenStax book had approximately the same quality as traditional books and 22 percent said it had higher quality. Only 14 percent of students who used the OpenStax book deemed it to have a lower quality than traditional textbooks.

Research Between 2002 and 2017: A Summary

To date, a total of 17 peer-reviewed studies that examine the efficacy of OER have been published; these studies involve 154,958 students. While there certainly are limitations in individual studies, collectively, there is a robust finding that utilizing OER in the classroom does not appear to decrease learning outcomes and saves considerable funds.

In terms of perceptions, at the time of this writing, 21 peer-reviewed studies of student and faculty perceptions of OER have been published. These studies involve 7,969 students or faculty members. While people may debate whether students are biased towards free books, or the extent to which they are good judges of what constitutes quality, it is clear that a strong majority of both faculty and students who have used OER prefer them to commercial textbooks.

Based on the increasingly extensive research on the efficacy and perceptions of OER, policy makers and faculty may need to judiciously examine the rationale for obliging students to purchase commercial textbook when excellent, free, openly licensed textbooks are an option. But significant questions remain. How can OER be more extensively utilized on college campuses? To what extent should administrators encourage the use of OER? What are the roles of libraries in increasing faculty awareness of OER? Are there additional pedagogies that become available when OER are the primary learning resources? As will be described in the following pages, these are important questions, and this book provides the beginnings of some very meaningful answers.


Bissell, A. (2009). Permission granted: Open licensing for educational resources. Open Learning, The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 24, 97–106.

Chiorescu, M. (2017). Exploring Open Educational Resources for College Algebra. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3003/4223

Coleman-Prisco, V. (2017). Factors influencing faculty innovation and adoption of open educational resources in United States higher education. International Journal of Education and Human Developments, 3(4), 1–12. Retrieved from http://ijehd.cgrd.org/images/vol3no4/1.pdf

Cooney, C. (2017). What impacts do OER have on students? Students share their experiences with a health psychology OER at New York City College of Technology. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3111/4216

Croteau, E. (2017). Measures of student success with textbook transformations: The Affordable Learning Georgia Initiative. Open Praxis, 9(1), 93–108. Retrieved from https://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/505/251

D’Antoni, S. (2009). Open educational resources: Reviewing initiatives and issues. Open Learning, The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 24, 3–10.

Delimont, N., Turtle, E. C., Bennett, A., Adhikari, K., & Lindshield, B. L. (2016). University students and faculty have positive perceptions of open/alternative resources and their utilization in a textbook replacement initiative. Research in Learning Technology, 24.

Fischer, L., Ernst, D., & Mason, S. L. (2017). Rating the quality of open textbooks: How reviewer and text characteristics predict ratings. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2985/4217

Florida Virtual Campus. (2016). 2016 student textbook and course materials survey. Retrieved from https://florida.theorangegrove.org/og/items/3a65c507-2510-42d7-814c-ffdefd394b6c/1/

Grewe, K. E., and Davis, W. P. (2017). The impact of enrollment in an OER course on student learning outcomes. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4).

Hendricks, C., Reinsberg, S. A., & Rieger, G. W. (2017). The adoption of an open textbook in a large physics course: An analysis of cost, outcomes, use, and perceptions. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3006/4220

Hewlett (2013). Open educational resources. Retrieved from http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education-program/open-educational-resources

Hilton, J., III. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Educational Technology Research and Development 64(4), 573–590.

Hilton, J., III, Fischer, L., Wiley, D., and Williams, L. (2016). Maintaining momentum toward graduation: OER and the course throughput rate. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 17(6). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2686/3967

Illowsky, B. S., Hilton, J., III, Whiting, J., & Ackerman, J. D. (2016). Examining student perception of an open statistics book. Open Praxis, 8(3), 265–276. Retrieved from https://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/304/218

Jhangiani, R. S., & Jhangiani, S. (2017). Investigating the perceptions, use, and impact of open textbooks: A survey of post-secondary students in British Columbia. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3012/4214

Jung, E., Bauer, C., & Heaps, A. (2017). Higher education faculty perceptions of open textbook adoption. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3120/4218

Ozdemir, 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. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12528-017-9138-0

Pitt, R. (2015). Mainstreaming open textbooks: Educator perspectives on the impact of OpenStax College open textbooks. International Review of Research on Open and Distributed Learning, 16(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2381/3497

Vojtech, G., & Grissett, J. (2017) Student perceptions of college faculty who use OER. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3032

Watson, C., Domizi, D., & Clouser, S. (2017). Student and faculty perceptions of OpenStax in high enrollment courses. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, 18(5). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i5.2462

Wiley, D., Bliss, T. J., & McEwen, M. (2014). Open educational resources: A review of the literature. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. Elen, & M. J. Bishop. (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 781–789). New York: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-3185-5_63

Wiley,D., Williams, L., DeMarte, D., and Hilton, J., III. (2016). The Tidewater Z-Degree and the INTRO model for sustaining OER adoption. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24(41), 1–12. Retrieved from https://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/1828

Winitzky-Stephens, J. R., & Pickavance, J. (2017). Open educational resources and student course outcomes: A multilevel analysis. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(4). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/3118/4224

  1. A list of colleges that have adopted open textbooks published by Rice University is provided at https://openstax.org/adopters. Note that these textbooks are only a small fraction of the total number of open textbooks that are currently available.


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OER: A Field Guide for Academic Librarians | Editor's Cut 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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