Free Educational Resources

For years, college students have complained about the cost of textbooks and course materials. At American Public University System, the institution where I served as president until August 2020, our mission of providing an affordable college education to our students led to the creation of a textbook grant for undergraduate students in 2001. The purpose of the grant was to cover an out-of-pocket cost that made college unaffordable for many students.

Since APUS sponsored the textbook grant financially, it was important to seek affordable sources for college textbooks. Over my nearly two decades of service, APUS provided new textbooks, used textbooks, eliminated middlemen by contracting with publishers directly and negotiating bulk purchase discounts, wrote and published our own textbooks, purchased and provided e-books, and utilized Open Education Resources (OER). Our librarians understood the importance of the textbook grant and managing the cost of textbooks and worked with faculty to surface OER and other lower cost options.

Open Education Resources

I wrote about OER as early as 2009 when I reviewed Curtis Bonk’s The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education. OER includes textbooks, instructional materials, courses, and even complete degree programs.

When a person (creator) releases their education materials into the open domain, their permissions to use those materials are usually summarized as the 5 R’s. The 5 R’s are the permissions granted to users to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the content without much, if any, limitation.

I included a link to OER Commons in my Curtis Bonk book review. OER Commons is one of the most frequently accessed sites for OER. Fourteen years later, OER Commons continues to publish tens of thousands of open and free resources developed by people from around the world.

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has provided a framework for academics and others to facilitate the utilization of their creation but recognize its original owner through a Creative Commons copyright license. An upcoming seminar hosted by Creative Commons addresses the issues of generative artificial intelligence and copyrights.

More recently, I wrote an article about Open Education Resources (OER) and how far it had progressed. At APUS, our commitment to OER led us to establish the International Journal of Open Educational Resources in partnership with the Policy Studies Organization.

Sources of free education resources other than OER Commons mentioned in the August 2022 blog article included Open Stax sponsored by Rice University, Project Gutenberg,  and MIT’s Open Courseware site. PBS Learning Media is another site popular with teachers. Open Education Global is a non-profit with a mission to broaden the access of OER around the world.

Merlot, a non-profit cooperative that collects on-line learning materials (and more), provides a site with a listing of nearly 10,000 open source textbooks.

At APUS, we encouraged our faculty to utilize OER in their courses. In addition, one of our provosts created incentives for department chairs and faculty to build Z degrees, Z denoting “Zero textbooks” required for the entire program. Our librarians included faculty-curated sources of Open Education Resources into the resources available for students to use in their course assignments and research. We also contributed some of our internally developed course content to the OER community.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and I was honored when my friend Javier Miyares implemented a successful OER initiative at the University of Maryland Global Campus to include undergraduate and graduate programs creating many Z degrees during the process. Imagine the favorable financial impact that initiative made to tens of thousands of UMGC students.

Open Courses

One of the first sources of open (no cost) courses was MIT’s Open CourseWare project. The Open CourseWare offers a self-guided experiences for courses that are available for download, remix, or reuse. There is no interaction with students or instructors for any of the Open CourseWare courses.

Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative offers courses for students as well as tools for educators. OLI’s content, instructional design, tools, and delivery platform are evidence-based. The courses have been reviewed by independent and internal studies.

Coursera was one of the early MOOC (massive open online course) pioneers. Its site touts more than 5,800 courses, professional certificates, and degrees from world class universities. The majority of these programs are not free. Coursera’s breadth of offerings and base of tens of millions of students allows it to offer freshly developed courses such as Prompt Engineering for ChatGPT, an 18 hour of seat time course taught by Vanderbilt University’s Dr. Jules White. At the date of this writing, nearly 125,000 students had enrolled for the free course.

MIT and Harvard jointly developed edX as a non-profit offering free courses, certificates, and programs to millions of students globally. 2U’s purchase of edX has provided additional funding for marketing and has utilized the edX student base as a source of leads for its online degree programs. edX offers more than 4,000 courses developed by MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Cambridge University among others.

Open Culture’s site offers more than 1,700 free courses. It also offers 200 online certificate programs and 200 free textbooks among other educational materials including movies and e-books.

Another early entrant to free online courses was Academic Earth. With free courses from 25 universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Oxford, the site also offers a wide variety of trade-related courses too.

Lumen Learning offers more low-priced courses than free courses, but its curriculum is fairly broad and the university partner that built the curriculum is listed for every course.

Trusted content

In another article I wrote about the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s (THECB) initiative to build OER general education courses (developed by UT Austin, Texas A&M College Station, and Rice University), I noted that THECB housed these courses in their THECB OERTX.

The THECB OERTX site provides more than 3,400 resources through nine collections. Content is labeled when it has been peer reviewed by a group of reviewers external to the author’s institution or if it has undergone a review by an expert other than the author. THECB’s OERTX site provides course materials and open courses identified, developed, and curated by THECB.

Through a Google search, I found many universities that provide OER pages for their faculty to utilize in building courses or assigning textbooks. Johns Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries provides this useful tool. Penn State hosts a similar page with 32 links to open textbooks. Stevenson University’s Library offers this comprehensive guide which includes a link to Maryland’s Open Source Textbook (M.O.S.T.) initiative.

More and more, institutions appear to be offering lists of OER sites for faculty to access. Whether or not faculty are encouraged to utilize OER appears to depend on the institution’s open commitment to affordability. My assumption is that institutions that post OER sites have reviewed those sites otherwise they would not implicitly endorse them.

Competing with Free Content

It is only natural that as OER expands from textbooks and papers used for research to lessons, assessments, and high school and college courses, that some people will question the value of paying for an education. In a few cases where the learner is retired or is a self-starter or cannot afford to pay for an education, utilizing free courses may be the best outcome.

Faculty members and engaged peers make a difference. Colleges and universities that offer classes with current content taught by qualified faculty members make a difference. Stimulating the intellectual curiosity of students is more important than simply distributing content that they can retrieve or obtain themselves.

Most people who observe and critique higher education are educated at the more selective private and public institutions. Price is less of a concern for them than brand. For many of the millions of students who enroll in college, their ability to afford college often outweighs their intellectual capacity to complete college. Most students enroll at the lowest cost colleges.

University of the People may not be the most prestigious university in the world or a university with a broad choice of courses and degrees. It could be the first that is accredited, 100% online and tuition-free. There are charges for assessments but there are also scholarships for those who cannot afford to pay for assessments.

Free content is not new. Public libraries flourished during the pre-Internet era. For many of my parents’ contemporaries, the public library served as their source of post-secondary education. In some areas, they’re still one of the primary sources of free content. Colleges benefited from the scarcity of academic content.

As the cost of attending college continued to increase, students have chosen more affordable colleges (public four-year and public community colleges) or have chosen not to attend college at all. With an average annual cost of college textbooks at approximately $1200, colleges would be wise to consider the adoption of OER and reduce a component of college expenses that doesn’t impact them.

Colleges and universities that are mindful of the currency of their course content, the quality of their instruction, and their cost of attendance will do well competing against free education resources. Referrals from satisfied students are the most effective form of advertising and most people prefer guidance and nudges from experts rather than self-instruction.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence