Students select courses for a variety of reasons, including their interests and career goals, degree requirements, scheduling considerations, and even the instructor of record. Students’ decision-making process for crafting their course schedule and prioritizing these factors is dependent on how transparent  information about each course is to students in the schedule of classes.

One important factor in students’ academic decision-making is textbook and course material costs, which, for the purposes of this book, may be used interchangeably when referencing commercial materials, including access codes for propriety homework platforms and resource bundles. A large percentage of students, especially those from historically underserved populations, struggle with the high costs of these materials (Senack 2014). Some may purchase books after skimping on other necessities, like rent or food. Others concerned with costs will intentionally decide to wait until the first week of class or later to determine if required materials will be used regularly and should be purchased, perhaps never actually buying the books needed for their courses.

Marking Open and Affordable Courses: Best Practices and Case Studies explores both of these issues—student transparency and affordability—in greater detail, providing institutions of higher education guidance on designating course material costs in their student information systems (SIS) or via other means. Student agency, or students’ ability and autonomy to use information to make informed decisions, is foundational to student success. Marking the schedule of classes with details about required course materials provides a mechanism for students to learn more about the course and weigh the course material costs with their financial circumstances.

Marking Open and Affordable Courses began as an exploration of how openly licensed course materials, called open educational resources (OER), might be designated in the schedule of classes in order to increase transparency and raise broader awareness about OER. However, as a majority of the book’s case studies demonstrate, institutions often adopt the broader vocabulary of free, zero-cost, affordable, or low-cost resources for their course marking efforts, thereby including OER use with other types of affordable course materials that do not share all the benefits of openly licensed content. The book explores the range of course material markings available and discusses the benefits and limitations of terminology used to mark courses.

Course Marking

Course marking, as defined in this book, is the process of assigning specific, searchable attributes to courses. This can include the practice of creating searchable, stand-alone lists of courses with shared features. Course marking enables students to make informed decisions about their schedules when they register for classes. It is used in this text as an umbrella term for course designations, attributes, and tags, all of which may carry specific meaning within an institution’s SIS.  Courses are marked with letters, numbers, graphic symbols, or colors to help students quickly identify important information to aid in their decision making and allow them to efficiently plan their academic careers.

Though relatively new to open and affordable resources, course marking is a common practice in higher education. Course markings allow students to filter by the mode of delivery (e.g., face-to-face, hybrid, online), instructor of record, campus location, course title, class times and dates, and academic session. The ready availability of this information allows students to find courses that meet major, program, or graduation requirements. Some course markings indicate that courses meet specific requirements, such as prerequisites or corequisites, or designate courses as honors, capstone, writing intensive, oral communication, research intensive, diversity, or service learning. For example, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa requires students to take a required number of general education courses with a Focus designation in order to graduate. These Focus courses are marked by a corresponding letter as follows: Contemporary Ethical Issues (E), Writing Intensive (WI), Oral Communication (O), and Hawaiian, Asian, & Pacific Issues (H).

Course markings were originally found in print course catalogs, accompanying course descriptions. As course catalogs moved online, course markings continued their prominence as a part of the course selection process. Now, electronic SIS used for registration also allow students the ability to search for classes using these unique attributes, easing the selection of classes that meet graduation requirements or personal preference. A blog post from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers called this type of system “the interactive catalog of the future,” boasting its seamlessness and improved searchability, connectivity,  accuracy, and efficiency (2016).

Course Material Affordability

Course materials have become less affordable as textbook costs increased 88% between 2006 and 2016 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016). This increase, coupled with the rising cost of tuition and other fees, has made graduating in four years more of a challenge, disproportionately affecting low-income students and students who might need to accommodate demanding work schedules, child and family care, and other responsibilities (Colvard, Watson, and Park 2018). Indeed, numerous studies demonstrate that course material costs have a powerful impact on student behavior. A 2014 report by the Student Public Interest Research Group shows that 65% of students chose to forgo purchasing a required educational resource because of cost (Senack 2014). The vast majority of these students said they did so despite recognizing the decision could have a negative impact on their grade in the course. The report also shows that resource costs impact the number and type of courses in which students enroll. These findings echo other studies, such as the 2016 Florida Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey, which presents sobering evidence that students attribute course material costs to dropping, failing, and withdrawing from courses or taking fewer courses, all of which lengthen time to graduation (Florida Virtual Campus 2016).

Institutions of higher education have responded to the problem of high textbook costs by creating course material affordability initiatives. Academic libraries have long provided textbooks and other materials on reserve, purchasing a copy of a required textbook and allowing students to check it out for a limited time. More recently, libraries have started to more systematically promote electronic library-licensed content as a potential solution as students already pay the fees that support the acquisition of eBooks and other material (see examples of programs centered on library-licensed content in Walz, Jensen, and Salem 2016). Campus stores have created used and rental programs to enable student access to course materials at a reduced cost and/or for a short period of time. Some campuses have spearheaded automatic purchasing programs (e.g., eText and “inclusive access”) in which publishers provide students day-one access to digital materials at a reduced cost, usually for an entire class, in exchange for the guarantee that a high percentage of students will participate. Students are typically enrolled in such programs automatically, though institutions are required to provide opt-out options. The legality of such programs has been contested, as evidenced by the class-action lawsuit filed in 2020 against several major publishers and bookstore chains (McKenzie 2020).

Finally, OER initiatives have gained traction in recent years. OER are free teaching and learning materials that are intentionally licensed to allow for revision and reuse. OER initiatives frequently incentivize instructors’ adoption of OER and promote the many benefits inherent in using OER, including free and unfettered student access, instructor agency, and the opportunity to pool resources and build course materials collaboratively (Jensen, n.d.).

Open Educational Resources

The term “OER” was coined at the 2002 UNESCO Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries. Since then, a number of organizations have offered different definitions of OER, though they consistently emphasize free, unencumbered access and flexible intellectual property rights. A commonly cited definition comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation:

Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions. (Hewlett Foundation 2015)

The latter half of this definition—the copyright status and licenses—differentiate OER from other course materials and make them a unique solution for affordability. While the other course material affordability strategies mentioned previously can lower the immediate cost for the course materials, students only have access to the materials for a limited period of time. For example, while content included in automatic purchasing programs is granted to students from day one at a lower price, students typically lose access to this content either at the end of the semester or a later designated time. This can be problematic for foundational content that students will need to revisit and review in later classes. Similarly, library-licensed content is free for students with university IDs and logins, but they typically lose that access upon graduation. OER, on the other hand, allow users to retain materials indefinitely and pass the materials along to others who might need them, without violating copyright.

OER copyright permissions are frequently communicated via a Creative Commons license. The licenses that allow for unlimited retention also generally allow for modification of course materials, with the exception of the Creative Commons No-Derivatives license.  Thus, with OER, instructors have the flexibility to edit content or combine multiple sources to create new course materials that match their desired course plan and learning outcomes instead of adapting syllabi to match commercial resources. OER can be customized to reflect the institution and its student body, allowing students to better relate to content.

David Wiley describes the unique ability to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute OER without limitation as the “5 Rs” (2014). The 5 Rs, combined with the ability to freely access the materials, means OER can have a significant impact on students’ learning experiences. For example, a growing body of research indicates that students do as well or better in courses that use OER compared with traditional commercial course materials (Open Education Group 2019). Other studies show a significant increase in enrollment intensity among students enrolled in OER courses (Fischer et al. 2015). An Appendix B (OER Benefits) is included with a brief list of other benefits that OER offers instructors, students, and institutions.

Open and Affordable Course Markings

A small number of colleges and universities in the United States have implemented a systematic method for communicating the availability of courses that utilize OER with students at the time they are building their course schedules. For example, the Scholarly Publishing and Resource Coalition (SPARC) reported that less than a quarter of the 132 member institutions that replied to their 2018/19 Connect OER survey reported that they had some form of course material marking in their schedule of classes (SPARC 2019).

While institutions are required to provide textbook information for students as a result of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (U.S. Department of Education 2008), this information is not always effectively integrated with the schedule of classes. Often, information about course materials and their costs is provided by the campus store. The schedule of classes may provide a link to the store’s website; otherwise, students would have to navigate and search the site separately. By integrating course materials cost information into the SIS via course markings, students receive class and cost information in one spot, helping them make informed decisions.

Additionally, course markings vary widely by institution and are not limited to open or OER. Markings also include such designations as free, no-cost, or zero textbook cost (ZTC), low-cost or affordable, and inclusive access. Terminology and interpretations of these labels are institutionally derived, with perhaps the biggest variance being the cost threshold (e.g., $25, $40) for affordable or low-cost courses (Chapter 12 [Branding]). While affordable and low-cost markings do not convey exact costs, the accompanying definitions help students budget for their classes. Open, free, and zero-cost labels indicate that a course has no course resource costs.

The strategy to avoid the use of “open” or “OER” when marking courses is often a pragmatic compromise intended to make the marking understandable by a wider student audience. However, this choice can be problematic for research studies that focus specifically on OER, hampering the institution’s ability to measure the specific use and impact of openly licensed content in classrooms. Those interested in OER marking have to balance their commitment to open access with their desire to further student agency, ensuring that student-facing interfaces and options are as straightforward as possible.

Transparency and Student Agency

Course markings are key to students having agency while selecting their courses. Not only do markings allow students to make educated decisions about the courses in which they enroll, but they provide integral information about courses, including course sequencing and degree requirements.

For open and affordable courses, marking efforts also reinforce the goal of price transparency required by the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act (U.S. Department of Education 2008). As mentioned above, textbook costs can have a significant impact on a student’s educational experience, with even the smallest extra expense becoming the link between staying in school or dropping out, as demonstrated by data collected by Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (Open Oregon 2019). Even when institutions seek to provide students with information about course material costs before they register for a particular course, difficulties with academic calendars frequently impede success. Instead, students often register for a course months in advance and then cannot access bookstore or syllabus information about required course materials until a few weeks before the semester, quarter, or term begins. Please note these terms may be used interchangeably throughout the text to denote a single academic period.

By integrating resource costs into the registration process, institutions aid students in making informed, timely decisions. Based on the studies cited above, such as the Florida Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey, it is clear that these costs can impact which classes students choose to enroll in or which majors they pursue. By increasing transparency through the schedule of classes, students have ready access to all the information need to make their course selections, even to the section level. Such transparency increases student agency in their academic careers, allowing them the greatest possibility for success.

About This Book

Marking Open and Affordable Courses is a practical guide for institutions navigating the uncharted waters of course material markings, summarizing relevant state legislation, providing tips for working with stakeholders, and analyzing technological and process considerations.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first section provides a high-level analysis of the technology, legislation, and cultural change needed to operationalize course markings and is organized with readers’ processes in mind, moving from government mandates, preliminary information gathering, and understanding technical requirements to communicating markings to key constituents and collecting data to demonstrate impact. The first section draws heavily on  case studies presented in the second section, providing real-life examples when concepts and strategies are discussed. The nine case studies presented in the second section offer tangible examples for those interested in how other institutions have implemented course markings. Case studies were collected voluntarily based on interest and reflect a range of institution types, markings, and SIS.

Federal and state legislation related to course marking is explored in Section I (Policy). Beginning with Oregon in 2015, a small number of states have passed legislation requiring institutions of higher education to publicly identify open and affordable resource use in course descriptions, course schedules, or online registration systems.

Section II (Stakeholders) highlights important considerations when working with different stakeholder groups. Open and affordable course material initiatives, particularly those involving course markings, have the potential to impact stakeholders who have vastly different responsibilities, opinions, and experiences. Additionally, the concept of OER may be new to many involved with establishing policies and workflows related to increasing transparency about OER use. The implementation process can be complex, even contentious, and requires frequent communication with a variety of stakeholders.

Designating courses as open and affordable inevitably requires altering or customizing the student information system (SIS). Such customization can be overwhelming and resource-intensive, depending on the system used and the technical resources available at the institutional level. Section III (Mechanics) explores various SIS functionality while compiling general best practices for those interested in planning and executing SIS changes to accommodate course markings. It also provides considerations for integrating the new course materials markings into textbook reporting and schedule generation processes.

In Section IV (Branding and Communication), the book explores the imperative work of communicating and continuously improving the promotion of open and affordable course markings. Without easy-to-understand markings and targeted, effective communication to stakeholders, course marking endeavors can be futile. These sections explore vocabulary considerations, discuss marketing basics, and utilize videos and flyers to illustrate message design.

Demonstrating the impact that course marking has on student awareness and decision making is key to continuing course marking initiatives. Section V (Impact) explores the types of impact course marking programs can demonstrate, including changes in student awareness and enrollment. While there are a limited number of examples of institutions that document the significance of open and affordable course markings, the section discusses possible strategies for those interested in making the case for continued resources and campus support.

Finally, Section VII (Case Studies) is devoted to short, informal case studies authored by instructors, librarians, campus store managers, and other stakeholders at institutions that have already implemented course markings. These case studies span the United States and Canada, with several types of institutions and SIS represented. A few case studies extend beyond individual institutions, documenting the course marking process at the consortium or state level (Table 1 in Case Studies provides more information). Case studies are intended to complement the sections above, giving readers practical applications of the concepts discussed.

As the book provides guidance and examples of course markings, a number of terms are introduced. To further complicate the matter, similar items are often referred to differently by varying institutions. To assist readers and those new to course material affordability or course markings, key terms are defined and differentiated in the book’s Glossary.

Limitations and Scope

Marking open and affordable course material is an incredibly nascent area of the literature on OER, with almost no case studies or formal research published on this topic. While an existing OER or affordable course material initiative or incentive program is not a required precursor for designating materials in the schedule of classes, these activities are synergistic. Having a program in place, and some existing knowledge about OER on campus, can aid in rallying support and resources for course marking and even help institutions quickly find courses to mark. Similarly, marking OER and affordable courses can result in more instructors and students learning about course material affordability and having an established OER program in place can provide an immediate opportunity for those interested to become more systematically involved. For this reason, Marking Open and Affordable Courses focuses on course marking specifically but also inherently discusses the benefits of having a larger OER or affordable course material program alongside a course marking initiative.

Marking Open and Affordable Courses makes visible ideas and implementations that are still evolving. The authors hold that OER use and course marking is the ideal. We know the permissions inherent in OER are fundamental for furthering teaching and learning. However, this book reflects the current state of the field as much as possible in an effort to inspire conversation about what could be.

Thus, while there are many benefits to using OER, the book intentionally centers on cost and affordability. The high cost of course materials is generally the primary impetus for starting a course marking initiative, but they need not be the last word. Once designating course material costs becomes more commonplace, institutions should consider making open or OER a more regular marking. Doing so can start conversations with instructors and students about how open differs from (and often exceeds) other affordable course material solutions.



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Marking Open and Affordable Courses: Best Practices and Case Studies Copyright © 2020 by Breeman Ainsworth; Nicole Allen; Jessica Dai; Abbey Elder; Nicole Finkbeiner; Amie Freeman; Sarah Hare; Kris Helge; Nicole Helregel; Jeanne Hoover; Jessica Kirschner; Joy Perrin; Jacquelyn Ray; Jennifer Raye; Michelle Reed; John Schoppert; and Liz Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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