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Reducing the Costs of Course Materials

Over the past years concerns about the costs of books and other course materials have increased in the Provost Student Advisory Committee meetings.

While tuition in US universities have risen, publication costs have risen even at higher rates. In some fields, basic text books are now a significant investment that students are asked to make. Interestingly, there are two good counter-trends to student costs of course materials that are occurring.

First, in some fields the availability of freely distributed (e.g., JSTOR) digital images of scholarly articles have replaced books for use in classes. The use of CANVAS as a convenient storage vehicle for these articles, linked to individual classes allows the course to go smoothly. The site becomes a one stop locus for all the needed components of learning. Interestingly, one positive effect of the COVID pandemic and the use of internet-assisted courses is that all classes required more use of electronic materials facilitated by CANVAS. Courses became less paper-intensive. Student course costs went down.
However, there are still courses that use full textbooks, in which the course activities follow the text chapter-by-chapter. Some of these courses ask the student to purchase quite expensive physical books. It is noteworthy that private vendors have established rental book features that reduce the price of the course, but even then the costs can be large for students from families of limited means.

A 2018 survey of students in Florida probed the result of the high cost of textbooks. When asked how they reacted to high-cost textbooks, these were the most prevalent answers: not purchasing the required textbook (64.2%); taking fewer courses (42.8%); not registering for a specific course (40.5%); earning a poor grade (35.6%); and dropping a course (22.9%). None of these outcomes seem desirable.

Relevant to this, the second development is sometimes called “Open Educational Resources.” These are digital materials that are freely distributed and which can be assembled to support a university course. None of the materials face the typical copyright restrictions that one finds in commercially published material. The benefit to the student is the elimination of book costs to take a course that is designed around Open Educational Resources. Students have access to materials from the first day of class. The instructor can edit and adapt OER materials to tailor them to the course. OER material is peer reviewed. OER resources are easily accessible.

Georgetown is a member of the Washington Research Library Consortium, which has sponsored over the past five years a program called Open@WRLC (see Recently, over 200 faculty members in the consortium institutions were involved in an effort to assemble and review OER materials, leading to nearly $70,000 in cost savings to students. Just this week, the WRLC moved to expand to support with faculty incentives to replace a commercial textbook with OER course materials, to assemble a set of OER materials to create a new text, or to author OER to serve a new course. This new program is open to Georgetown faculty. More information when available will appear at

Faculty members have always designed and delivered their courses to achieve the learning outcomes they and their colleagues have chosen. They properly control the pedagogical strategy for the course. But, written materials are key to the vast majority of courses. OER materials might be viewed as a new source of materials, with an attractive feature — they eliminate delays and costs that students bear in following the course content. The result can be higher student engagement in the course activities because of the assurance that all students have equal access to course materials. It’s worth a look at OER materials to see if we find attractive solutions for each of our courses.

4 thoughts on “Reducing the Costs of Course Materials

  1. I remember learning that a professor cannot have a course where all material is freely available. I believe the publishers were able to establish a law that part of the readings must be copy right readings.
    Please let me know if I am wrong.

  2. I’m proud to be the senior contributing author to a new open source textbook “Introduction to Politics and Political Science.” This course is not offered at Georgetown, but I do hope this book will be widely used, as it is free and open to the public.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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