For Iowa college students seeking ways to cut down on costs, open educational resources may just be what they’re looking for. Initiatives to provide free, openly licensed text books and other course materials are picking up steam and making a difference on campuses across the state.

Open educational resources, known simply as OER, are finding their way into Iowa’s universities, private colleges and community colleges to provide affordable and equitable access to course materials for students. OER grants access through an open license that allows faculty to adapt and distribute the materials for their courses. Students are then able to freely access and use the materials, typically online, without cost.

“The word ‘free’ gets people excited,” said Abbey Elder, open access and scholarly communication librarian at Iowa State University. “Affording education in Iowa and around the U.S. can be daunting for students and their families, and any additional expense can be surprising. Open educational resources provide one less barrier to get them through their college careers.”

Providing OER materials benefits all college students but may be especially impactful to first-generation students, students of lower socio-economic status and others who may be unaware of the costs outside of tuition.

“OER materials are making positive impacts for student equity,” said Heather Meissen, education consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “By having free course materials, students of any income level or background will be able to more easily access a college education.”

The implementation of OER resources at Iowa university and college campuses began through individual grassroots efforts. But the common goal of creating equitable access spaces has provided plentiful opportunities for collaboration.

In 2018, the Iowa Open Education Action Team (Iowa OER), comprised of higher education and government officials, formed to provide guidance and training resources to institutions seeking to implement OER materials. Colleges can receive more information on how to access OER materials and how to best implement them on campus through Iowa OER.

“The biggest misconception about OER is that faculty will need to start from scratch to create content,” Elder said. “There is a lot of great, existing content out there that you can easily adopt. Iowa OER can assist with guidance on resources like this as well as outreach ideas.”

Funding opportunities have also enhanced Iowa’s advancement of OER within universities and colleges. In 2020-21, the Iowa Department of Education released over $500,000 in funding to three consortia committed to OER implementation.

The funds were provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER I) Fund. The Iowa Department of Education extended the funding to applicants who were committed to providing equal access to education courses and curriculums.

“The Department was supportive of the collaborative efforts on OER,” said Kelly Friesleben, education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “It was our intention to help accelerate and enhance their work through this grant award.”

OER projects supported by the Department’s GEER I funding included the Iowa Private Academic Libraries (IPAL) Open Educational Resources Project, which featured 18 private colleges and universities jointly working together. The GEER I monies funded 62 OER projects for this group, and nearly 1,800 college students benefited from reduced textbook costs. This equated to a cost savings of almost $208,500 total.

Additionally, a second project, known as Iowa Cross-Institutional Open Educational Resources (I-COER), used GEER I funding across seven private colleges, universities and community colleges for OER implementation. Eighteen courses using OER materials – including psychology, accounting, nursing, business administration, Spanish, English and more – were implemented in the spring 2022 semester. An estimated 1,100 students were impacted, and further implementation was planned for future semesters.

The third GEER I project, Open Educational Resources Capacity Building for Iowa Regent Universities, focused solely on Iowa’s public universities: University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa. Training materials on OER were created, and grants were provided to authors for the adaptation and creation of new OER materials.

“We worked together on this OER project because we have faculty at each of the regent universities who are teaching similar material,” Elder said. “The GEER funding was helpful to build OER that could be used across all our institutions and support instructors who may not have other funding to support developing new materials.”

Elder points out that OER materials not only help current students with their individual learning, they also help promote Iowa to potential new students, faculty and researchers.

“Since OER materials can be easily adapted and shared, there is a larger global reach of the materials,” she said. “It can show the expertise that our faculty have and what kind of education we can provide in Iowa.”

Although OER materials have been around for a while, Elder is hopeful that they will continue to grow in their use and implementation across Iowa.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “In the past five years, there has been so much development and expansion. It has been a benefit to students across the board, and I’m interested to see where things will go.”