Deception Pass, Whidby eIsland, Washington State
Deception Pass, Whidbey Island, Washington State

OnCampus Research (2013) Open Course Library Survey Results OnCampus Research, December 2013

Biemiller, L. (2014) Open Course Library Sees Little Use in Washington’s Community Colleges Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31

The Washington Community and Technical College system has identified free or reduced-price materials for 83 of their highest enrolled courses, of which 42 were introduced in 2012. OnCampus Research, an independent market research company that focuses on community colleges in the USA, surveyed campus stores in 2013 and received responses from 25 of the 34 campus stores in the system.

Survey results

The report made the following conclusions:

  • The availability of free or lower-priced course materials for popular, highly enrolled courses did NOT equate into actual use of those materials– except for very small percentages of class sections and students. (Of the 98,130 students enrolled in these 42 courses on the 25 campuses, only 2,386 (2.4%) were in sections that used the recommended OCL materials.)
  • The savings from adopting OCL materials over traditional course materials are substantial, but those savings were realized mostly in theory, not in practice. Unless or until a majority of students are actually using the OCL materials, there are no significant savings for students in OCL courses.
  • Given the possibility of such substantial savings, the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials. Additional study would be needed to address this issue.


For me, this survey raises more questions than answers:

  • who commissioned the survey? If it was the college stores, would students necessarily go through college stores to download free online materials? If it was the college stores, is not there a conflict of interest here? Who benefits from the sale of high-priced textbooks?
  • is this survey too soon to draw any real conclusions? How long were the materials available for instructors to review them? These kinds of decisions are likely to be taken several months before courses open, and it may take another year at least before instructors start to accommodate to these materials
  • since the report concluded: ‘the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials’, why did the Chronicle of Education, when reporting this, NOT get a comment from the people running the project in Washington State?

Of course, there may be real problems with this project. In particular, instructors may not have had enough notice or involvement to make the necessary changes to their classes for the 2012 academic year, to make best use of the recommended materials. However, I think I’ll reserve my judgement until the Washington Community and Technical College system presents its own findings and conclusions. It’s a story though worth following.


  1. Thank you for this opportunity to respond.

    The Open Course Library (OCL) project funded faculty to develop an openly licensed version of the 81 most common courses in our system of 34 community and technical colleges. Faculty were not asked to create a single, ideal version of the course but to develop a course that cost students $30 or less in textbook costs. Faculty were asked to find existing resources rather than build new resources, and their solutions include not only new open materials, but also existing open textbooks and low-cost publisher materials.

    The goal of this demonstration project was never to ask nor require all faculty to use the materials that were selected by the OCL faculty developers. While it’s hard to capture the adoption rate of open resources, other research has shown that faculty who have used OCL materials have saved students $5.5 million. See this study by US Student PIRGS:

    The NACS study looks at half the courses during one term, finds that students paid an average of $25 per class but concludes that savings to students are significant only if “the majority of students are actually using the OCL materials.” In what world should the majority of faculty be expected to choose the exactly same materials? Not ours.

    And do all open educational resources projects or other efforts like textbook rental programs have to reach 50% adoption rate before they can be called a success?

    The OCL is only one of many initiatives in our system–and, of course, all over the world–to reduce textbook costs for students. We are proud of OCL and proud of the faculty, librarians and instructional designers who worked on it, but with a total investment of $1.8 million, the Open Course Library can only be one part of the campaign to reduce textbook costs.

    Although OCL was not invited to take part in this NACS study, we welcome opportunities to participate in research on the OCL, OER and cost-saving solutions.

    Connie Broughton
    Director, eLearning and Open Education
    Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges

  2. I have a strong suspicion that unless those open resources are accompanied by many, varied, and excellent instructor resources, both print and digital, the OER will usually fail to attract adopters.

  3. Tony,

    Thanks for your post.

    Back in 2005 I wrote two articles on open textbooks:

    The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks


    Persuading Faculty to Select Open Textbooks

    The latter outlines three policies schools might adopt to encourage faculty to select open textbooks: the jawbone, the stick, and the carrot.

    Most if not all schools now simply “jawbone” faculty – i.e. they try to talk them into selecting open textbooks.
    I certainly hope schools refrain from adopting a “stick” policy, which leaves the carrot.

    The latter gives faculty a financial incentive to adopt open textbooks – they are still free to select commercial textbooks, but if they save the school and students money by selecting open textbooks they can apply for a small grant to customize the work provided that their customization is also put into the creative commons.

    The first article discusses the cost of developing online courses at the OU UK, and floats the idea of buying out the OU UK and putting their work in the creative commons as an alternative to commercial textbooks.


  4. __At this point in the Pilot, the only firm figures are the costs of $1.8M. However, reviewing the OCL’s How-to Guide _ _ we see how Students access and download learning resources and course materials, so, it appears that the data necessary to accurately assess Students’ use of any and all OCL online assets is collected and available to be reported by Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and the SBCTC Staff. Actual usage data can be analyzed over the few terms to assess changes in Student usage patterns, changes in spending and judge the proof of concept for this Pilot. _ The Student PIRG is an OER Policy Advocacy group, which is a concern for those who trust the integrity of an unbiased research source.

  5. __Thanks for your comments, Fred, I enjoyed reading your position papers and about the OpenTextbook cost saving model – You said “If we assume that high quality, free public textbooks are available, the next question is how to persuade faculty to switch from commercial to open textbooks.”, rather, I think, the next questions to ask is how to improve OER professional quality and standards, Respect the Faculty’s priorities, and do not undermine their reasons for continuing to choose the best available material / textbooks for their Students’ Courses. Faculty have seen that, in its’ current iteration, OER is common quality, not yet an equivalent “high-quality” learning experience _In this pilot, the OCL, on a $1.8M budget, had only about $22,000 to spend on content development for each of 83 Courses._ in contrast, “At present, the UKOU spends up to $3 million dollars (U.S.) per course on content development, and they have more than 200 undergraduate courses in their inventory, which comes to a total investment of up to $600 million. They also keep their content updated on a regular basis, which, among other things, means replacing each course from scratch after eight years. In other words, the UKOU currently spends up to $75 million per year on content development, which amounts to around 40 percent of their budget” – The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks _


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