Free Textbooks for Students: A Look at Open Educational Resources in the UH System


The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.

— American Library Association Motto, Originally Adopted in 1892

OERLibrarians believe in the equity of access, eliminating the barriers often seen with a lack of income, knowledge, or training. The Internet has acted as an agent toward greater equalization. With a few clicks of a mouse or a swipe on a smartphone, people are able to create code, read the classics, or take a university class for free. As online education redefines learning, institutions are also evolving. Open Educational Resources (OER)  is one avenue for change, and it has already been implemented in the University of Hawaii system through the actions of both librarians and instructors.

On May 4, Kapiolani Community College Faculty Senate and Student Congress hosted a forum on OER at UH. KCC Head Librarian Susan Kazama and Digital Initiatives Librarian Sunny Pai facilitated a dialogue among KCC faculty, staff, and students about what OER means to their own campus, defining it as “teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium made freely and legally available that permit anyone to reuse, change, and redistribute.”

The forum included insightful breakout talks where attendees assumed various roles and looked at OER from different points of view. People played the part of faculty, staff, administrator, or student. In my opinion, focusing on students is the key component. They are the majority, often struggle financially, and could potentially use OER the most.

KCC Counselor Shannon Sakamoto (L) and Digital Initiatives Librarian Sunny Pai (R)

Improving the lives of students in need is of particular importance in community colleges, which is reflected in the Strategic Plan for the University of Hawaii Community Colleges (UHCC) . The goal of Strategic Outcome B is to “increase the educational capital of the state by increasing the participation and completion of students, particularly low-income students and those from underserved regions.” One concern from the start is whether or not these under-resourced populations would have the technology to use OER.

When I taught workshops to high school students, they were excited to read books or make flashcards online. However, I asked a few students a week later if they had used these new tools. They explained that they could only do so in the school library. They did not have a device that could access the Internet. Students here at KCC tell us that Lama Library is the only place where they have online access. Of course, there will be alternatives, such as taking OER materials to the campus print shop, but will that cause a greater divide that already exists? Perhaps surveying UH students to see what they prefer may be the first step in seeing if lack of access to technological devices is a real or perceived problem across campuses in Hawaii.

Pai and Kazama explained that textbook costs can influence how many classes students take and which classes they take. Sixty-five percent of students do not even buy the required textbooks for class, according to a 2014 Public Interest Research Group survey that included 150 campuses across the country. KCC Counselor Shannon Sakamoto echoed this sentiment; she said that every semester, there is at least one student who purposely selects classes without book costs. The survey also found that 82% of the students feel that they would do better in their courses if the textbook was online with an option for a print copy. This shows that students are eager for a change and ready to embrace technology to obtain course materials.

Thankfully, the faculty is listening to students. OER Librarian Sara Rutter spoke at the forum about the zero-textbook-cost courses this summer through UH Outreach College. Instructors across a wide array of disciplines are providing students texts created by UH faculty, internet resources, and UH Manoa library materials. These classes will be marked as zero-textbook-cost in the catalog. The Leeward Community College OER Team built an online template for English 100 with the goal of easing the burden on new adjuncts or faculty members who may need a place to start. KCC created a zero-cost course packet for a Philosophy 100 course that was used this spring.

Awaiting student response is the next step. Will students enroll in the zero-textbook-costs in greater numbers than the courses that require the purchasing of textbooks? Will survey results and download statistics show that Philosophy 100 students prefer the online textbook option, especially if it’s free? A deeper analysis into student patterns of usage may allow for more efficient planning going forward.

The commitment to OER implementation is genuine. It is dynamic and moving forward with cross-campus and interdisciplinary collaboration. It is an exciting way to promote collegial dialogue and alleviate financial stress on college students. The caveat is ensuring proper training for students so they can seamlessly begin using the technology needed to take advantage of OER without feeling overwhelmed.

Kara Plamann Wagoner is a reference librarian at KCC. The views expressed here are her own.