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Zero-Cost Textbook Adoption: OER Basics

This guide offers information and best practices related to the adoption of zero-cost course materials.

Defining Open Educational Resource (OER)

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provides the following definition of open educational resources (OER):

OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.



Open textbooks, are a particular kind of OER that can help alleviate the burden of textbook costs for students and provide faculty with content that can be customized for their course.


Yes, OER are free!  But they are not only free; they are free with permission to be reused and modified.

Infographic illustrating that OER are free with permission to be reused and modified. A long description of the infographic is available at

We use the icons above to illustrate that OER are free with permission to be reused and modified. A long description of the graphic is available at


What is NOT an OER?  The following may be free, but are not openly licensed, and therefore not OER (non-open):

  • Online resources with an "all rights reserved" copyright
  • Library licensed content (articles, ebooks)
  • Print books borrowed from or on reserve at the library

Suggested Readings

The 5 Rs of OER

A truly open resource is licensed to allow all of the 5Rs:

Infographic listing the “5 R’s” of OER: Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute. A long description of the infographic is available at

The 5Rs of OER Infographic by SUNY OER Services. This work is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The infographic above lists the “5 R’s” of OER: Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute. A long description of the infographic is available at

In other words, here is a list of things you can do with OER without having to seek permission from the creator: 








hardbound textbooks scattered on a table

OpenStax Textbooks by Rice University.

Availability of Resources: Most of the OER available today target high cost, high impact general education courses such as Psychology, Biology, and Calculus.  There are open textbooks available for specialized subject areas or graduate level courses, just not as many.  This is changing though, as open textbooks publishing is increasing.  Check out the Open Textbook Library's Textbooks in Development page to see some books on the horizon.  Ancillary materials may also be limited for some subject areas.  You can find lecture slides, notes, and lesson plans online, but other ancillary content such as homework software and test banks are harder to find.

Time: It takes time and effort to find OER that might work for your course.  These constraints are always going to be an issue for instructors who want to try something new in their class. The PALSave Team is here to provide support to mitigate this barrier.

Misconceptions: Myths about OER like low quality or lack of access to print versions might prevent some faculty from considering them.  This resource from SPARC  attempts to bust those myths: OER Mythbusting.


How Textbooks Become Open + Creative Commons

Funders like government, foundations, and consortia work with publishers and authors in higher education to produce books that are are openly licensed to allow free use and repurposing. 


The most commonly used intellectual property license for OER that permits free use and re-purposing is called Creative Commons Licensing. Creative Commons licenses work with legal definitions of copyright to automatically provide usage rights pertaining to that work.

Authors choose a Creative Commons license to signal readers that they are ok with the uses described by the 5 Rs.  There are 6 different licenses as seen below.  The most open license is CC-BY.  When an author assigns this license, a
ny use of their resource is allowed as long as the creator is attributed. The least open is CC-BY NC ND, which prevents commercial uses or derivatives.  Many open advocates do not view resources licensed with the ND (no derivative) clause "open," since they cannot be modified.

See the graphic below for more information on Creative Commons Licensing, what the licenses look like, and what the symbols mean. A long description is available at

Infographic of Creative Commons licenses, symbols and their meanings. A long description of the infographic is available at

How to License Poster by Creative Commons. This work is licensed under CC BY 4.0.



For Students
Access: The use of open textbooks directly contributes to academic success by ensuring that all students, no matter their means, have access to their course materials on day one of the course. This removes the potential for students to fall behind if they are unable to find or afford the text, or if they choose to delay purchasing at the beginning of the semester. Further, open textbooks are helpful to all students due to their portability and ease of access, especially for students with disabilities. Students can retain access to the book after the course and after they graduate as well.
Academic Achievement: Recent OER research demonstrates that students provided with open course materials at the beginning of a class get significantly better academic results than those asked to buy high-cost texts.
Retention: OER encourage student retention. Research in this area shows decreased DFW (Drop/Fail/Withdraw) rates in courses using OER, and that students in OER courses enroll in a significantly higher number of credits in the next semester.
Satisfaction: Studies have concluded that students report favorable perceptions of OER course materials, as well as favorable perceptions of instructors who choose to use those materials in their class. When asked about his perception of the open textbook used in one of his recent courses, one PALNI student noted the quality and ease of access, stating the book was of “really good quality” and the format “made it easier to find specific information.”
Cost Saving: By helping to remove a portion of financial pressures while offering materials of comparable quality, OER can support students’ ability to learn. For students with financial difficulties, the stress from expensive textbooks can actually impede learning. A Princeton study found that “a person preoccupied with money problems exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep.”
Customization: OER can be customized and relevant to the needs of the individual course and learners, and could invite greater student engagement in the creation of course materials. 
For Faculty
Freedom to Choose and Revise: Commercial textbooks are not the only option.  OER provide alternative learning materials to consider when redesigning your course.  Also, they allow the freedom for faculty revise, update, and tailor the content to fit their courses.
Collaboration: Faculty can create or remix existing OER and share them openly with other educators. They can collaborate with faculty at their own institutions, or other institutions around the world. Also, many open textbooks and other OER are reviewed by peer faculty members.  Educators may explore these user reviews for a more in-depth understanding of the resources available.
Help your Students Learn: For the reasons mentioned in the For Students section above, open textbooks support student success.