Kathy Essmiller looked down at the budget for the fine arts department at Oklahoma Christian School.
For her entire career, the budget had never increased, even though they kept gaining students. It only declined or, if they were lucky, stayed the same.
As a result, the fine arts department at the school shared resources with one another. Essmiller had to teach her band students with what she had because fine arts are just not a priority in schools.
Many college students face this same deficit.
As the cost of textbooks rises, students are forced to either comply with textbook companies and buy their product or turn to their classmates and share resources.
This lack of college textbook affordability has led Essmiller to become an Open Educational Resources librarian.
“When I came to Oklahoma State to work on my Ph.D., my goal was to create a beginning jazz improv curriculum that then could be published openly so that all instructors could use it,” Essmiller said. “When I got here, I found out that actually had a name, and it was Open Educational Resources.”
Essmiller is one of 24 2019-2020 OER Research Fellows and she is the second OSU researcher to participate in the program. Her job is to promote the benefits of communal resources at the university.
Bonnie Cain-Wood, the OSU Communications Manager, said Essmiller’s work is making a difference. In just one course, Essmiller lowered hundreds of students’ textbook costs.
“Over in the journalism school, Craig Freeman is one of the faculty who has adopted an open textbook for his class,” Cain-Wood said. “That one is really impactful because Craig adopted that for his Media in a Diverse Society class that has an enrollment of about 400.”
Cain-Wood said she hopes, in the future, every student who comes to OSU will have at least one class with an OER.
According to the American Council on Education OERs go beyond just textbooks.
“Open textbooks are a subset of OER, a broad category that includes courses, assessments, articles, case studies, and many other types of educational materials,” the ACE website stated. “The principle of OER is that materials produced by one party can be used freely by others.”
While not every student has had a course with an OER, the number of classes that use them is growing.
Junior Raegan Higgins has been in a class with an open textbook, and she said that was helpful for the course.
“We all had open access to it,” Higgins said. “We were able to print off pages that we needed to. We had quizzes out of the book, but she gave us the book for free.”
Christian Maldonado is also a junior, but he hasn’t had a class with an OER. He said that while he thinks they would help him in college, he can see why some classes still don’t use them.
“I can see points on both sides,” Maldonado said. “The author who wrote [the textbook] is selling a product, so they are entitled to set the price.”
Essmiller said that while OERs make for better education regardless of affordability, she understands why some classes are necessary to not have open resources.
“I would not ever go so far as to say that, at Oklahoma State University, every course should have a zero-dollar textbook,” Essmiller said. “That’s not necessarily the best thing for every teacher or course. It takes a lot of work for faculty to engage with open educational resources and curate materials that are appropriate and meaningful for their classes.”
Even with these exceptions, Essmiller said she hasn't stopped her fight to lower students’ textbook costs. She said what’s been most successful in her tenure as the OER librarian is the personal communications and interactions with people who’ve benefited from and experienced OERs.
“People have quality experiences in a class that has no cost,” Essmiller said. “They go tell their friends, and instructors realize that they’re able to personalize the teaching experience to meet their own skills and goals using open resources. Then, they go tell their friends, and it continues to grow.”