British Columbia Library Association

Open Educational Resources and International Students: Open Textbooks and Accessibility at Alexander College

By Caitlin Lindsay


The move to virtual teaching has had profound impacts on multiple services offered by all universities and colleges, including student access to course textbooks. Alexander College (AC) has been no exception, with the inequities faced by many of our students being laid bare over the past 20 months; barriers to textbook access have included cost, vendor supply for international students, and disruptions to local mailing services, to name a few. Traditionally, university and college libraries have liaised internally with faculty and the bookstore, in order to provide students with textbook copies available to borrow. The necessity of closing library spaces and implementing virtual, asynchronous or distance education has profoundly disrupted this traditional student support system. In order to address this issue, the Alexander College Library helped support an institutional initiative to adopt open educational resources (OER).   



Traditionally at Alexander College, the bookstore would purchase physical textbooks and have them available for students to purchase and the library would have one copy of each text on reserve for students to borrow. This is a system used by many post-secondary organizations. As of March 2020, this system could no longer be implemented for all students, due to the virtual environment of many courses and the potential for prolonged timelines over which students may need to study from their home countries or be expected to complete at least some of their classes virtually. The pandemic has also created an environment where distance, asynchronous and virtual education will likely be offered with much higher frequency, even at such a time when students are able to be physically back on campus. Institutions needed to pivot to meet the needs of this changed student demographic, which at AC involved providing alternative (accessible) textbooks options for students. 


Open Educational Resources – Brief Literature Review

Open educational resources 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” (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2013, p. 16). The push for adopting open educational resources is relatively recent, with several open education projects launching in the early 2000’s (Abri & Dabbagh, 2018, p. 83-84). OER are unique in that they are not constrained by traditional copyright models; they instead allow individuals to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute content (Hilton, Wiley, Stein, & Johnson, 2010, p. 39). 

The unique copyright and access model provided by OER allows for a number of benefits, including the reduction of financial barriers for students, classroom learning outcomes for faculty, and increased marketability and retention for school administration. Studies have shown that students facing financial difficulties may choose to not purchase textbooks and scholars have argued that this gap can be solved by implementing OER (Hilton, Robinson, Wiley, & Ackerman, 2014, p. 68-69; Hendricks, Reinsberg & Rieger 2017, p. 79). As one study noted, free resources, such as open textbooks “reduce the need for students to seek financial aid or work extra hours” (Hilton & Laman, 2012, p. 269-270). Adoption of OER can save students significant amounts of money, as some local institutions exemplify; BC Campus Open Education has tracked that for almost 4,500 open textbook adoptions between 5 institutions, students have saved more than 24 million dollars over the last decade (BC Campus, 2021). 

Savings are not the only benefit of adopting OER. The high cost of textbooks can also be a “pedological issue” for faculty, as studies have shown that students have admitted to going without textbooks and attributed poor performance in courses due to a lack of accessible and affordable course materials (Hendricks, Reinsberg & Rieger 2017, p. 87). Studies have shown that easy access to course material (such as OER resources, which are frequently both free and digital) can improve students grades and course completion rates when compared to students using traditional resources (Fischer, Hilton, Robinson & Wiley, 2015, p. 169; Grewe & Davis, 2017, p. 236; Colvard, Watson & Park, 2018, p. 269). Additionally, an open textbook study conducted within a psychology department asked faculty their impressions of using open resources in the classroom. One faculty member noted that they found their students more prepared for class, under the assumption that this was because students were “actually reading the material”. Another faculty member noted that they saw more participation in their classes because of the accessible nature of open resources – since students can read the material from anywhere, they were choosing to engage with the material during lectures on their phones (Magro, & Tabaei, 2020, p. 91).  

Lastly, studies have also shown the benefits of adopting OER from an administrative perspective. One study noted lower withdrawal rates for students in courses using open materials, and another noted that higher retention rates were seen in courses adopting open textbooks (Colvard, Watson, & Park, 2018, p. 273; Hilton & Laman, 2012, p. 263). Other studies have shown that an institution’s adoption and marketing of open materials to students proves effective for student recruitment. MIT, for example, noted that 31% of their students stated that the open courseware at MIT was a “significant” influence on choosing MIT as their school (Carson, Kanchanaraksa, Gooding, Mulder & Schuwer, 2012, p. 26).


Initiatives at Alexander College

Alexander College Library implemented several initiatives to help support Faculty and students in the adoption of open educational materials, specifically the adoption of open textbooks.  

OER Guide:

The Alexander College Library created an OER guide for Faculty during the Spring 2020 term. The guide included a basic definition of OER as well as some introductory content on copyright for open access resources. It then provided information on low or no-cost alternatives to traditional textbook vendors, which included searching for and using eBooks already available through the library databases, finding open access journals, and a list of open textbook repositories. The guide also provided information for Faculty on the difficulties of accessing materials through traditional vendors; this included an explanation of licensing restrictions, some information on the cost for students renting or buying eBook versions of texts, and brief details on other access issues students were having with traditional textbooks (such as mail delays for physical copies and geo-blocking restrictions on e-resources). 

Faculty Consultations:

Following the OER Guide created by the library and burgeoning interest from Faculty around accessible textbook options, the library also provided consultations for Faculty and entire departments, as requested. These consultations ranged from locating unique open materials, like virtual labs for biology classes, to general presentations in department meetings about where to begin locating open textbooks for specific subjects. 

Subject Guides:

Like many libraries during the early days of the pandemic, the Alexander College Library was focused on reviewing and refreshing our virtual research services for students. The library began by reviewing the college’s Subject Guides and decided that as a part of the Subject Guide review process we would be including specific “open access” sections in each. Each Subject Guide at the College now has a section for open access resources, which includes both textbooks and open journals. This has allowed the library to better showcase the open options available to students and highlight the utility of open resources in the research process. 


AC English Department as an Early Adopter of Open Textbooks

When the pandemic forced the College to transition to virtual classes and print texts became more difficult to access, AC English instructors made the transition from print to OER textbooks. 100% of the English department’s textbooks for the Fall 2021 term are available to students at no additional cost, either as open access texts or as library eBooks. 

Derek Soles, AC’s English Department Head (and author of a BC Campus open textbook) had this to say on the transition:

We are about to return to majority in-person teaching and learning, but most of us will continue to use OER texts. OER’s can save students taking English classes a considerable amount of money. A print literature anthology plus a composition handbook, rhetoric, and reader can set students back $100 or more. However, we would not abandon print textbooks only to save students money. The OER replacements would need to be of high quality.  

We need not venture further than our own B.C. Open Textbook Collection and our AC Library OER Guide to find these high-quality resources that we need to realize the goals and learning outcomes of our composition and literature classes.  The B.C. Open Campus offers four recently published texts on academic writing and an excellent anthology of English literature.  The Adult Education link also lists resources well suited to the needs of AC English students.

(D. Soles, personal communication, December 1, 2021.)


Reflections and Future Directions

The shift to an entirely virtual environment meant huge changes in all aspects of post-secondary education. The success that Alexander College has seen with the adoption of open access learning materials is due in large part to the hard work and diligence of Faculty, who have spent the last 20 months trying to connect students to resources. The initiatives implemented by the library have helped center open access as a topic of conversation, and have hopefully aided students and Faculty in connecting with these resources with greater ease and confidence. 

The College has certainly seen a dramatic transformation in the types of materials used in courses. During the Winter 2020 term, when all courses were in-person, only about 15% of the course texts were free digital materials. The Spring 2021 term, however, has seen marked increase in this, with about 45% of the course texts accessible to students freely either as digital open access or open educational resources or as a resource located through the AC Library at no additional cost to the student. The cost savings for students due to this shift have been equally dramatic; by comparing the cost of a textbook required for just one course in the Fall of 2019 (from a CHEM 100 class), students in that same class in the Fall 2021 term have saved more than $3,000 collectively, just by switching to an open textbook. 

The benefits of open access resources to post-secondary education will not diminish with the return to campus. Coast savings, ease of use, and accessibility of materials are all important aspects that Alexander College will continue to consider, even as we look towards terms where we may see more and more students back at the campus library. 

Looking to the future, Alexander College Library would like to be able to develop resources for Faculty for the creation of open textbooks. The library is interested in facilitating workshops on publishing guidelines and authoring & editing platforms (such as Pressbooks), which would require library staff to invest more time exploring and learning about these topics ourselves. The library is also interested in better understanding how the College can holistically support OER adoption in classrooms; we are currently looking towards some of the supports offered by public institutions (such as grants or institutional repositories) and examining how some of these initiatives might look for an institution of our size. 


Caitlin Lindsay is a Librarian at Alexander College in Burnaby, BC.



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