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Blazing Equitable Pathways for Community College Students Through OER

by Nina Owolabi / Nov 11, 2020

"What happened last semester?" My advisees and I would look at the illuminated computer screen, offering a glimpse into their course history. As a community college advisor, I often asked this question of my returning students when we met to imagine how to move forward in the new term.

It was not long before the students admitted they did not purchase their textbooks. Because they had limited access to the text, specific assignments weren't completed. Yes, they spoke with the professor, but the faculty member only emphasized the students' need to obtain the text. There was little their professor could do to help students get the materials.

Another common query of my students three to four weeks into the semester: "Why haven't you accessed your materials yet?"

The prominent answers I heard: "I'm waiting for my next paycheck" or "I can't purchase it right now."

Their responses kicked me into "problem-solving mode" to help my students figure out creative ways to access their textbooks. I empathized with their situations. Most of the students I served identified as Black, Latinx, other racially minoritized populations, and were full Pell grant recipients. They worked multiple jobs, cared for family members, contributed to household bills, and generally did their best to survive. For some, the idea of purchasing books worth hundreds of dollars (new or used), when there were other essential expenses, was inconceivable.

Now reflecting on that time, I wish the students had access to less expensive materials so they did not feel like they had to choose survival over books. Open educational resources (OER) could be one possible solution, with contingencies.

OER's Potential

These no to low-cost, open-source, or licensed digital materials can be remixed, reused, reproduced, and adapted for faculty and student needs. OER is an international movement, with the term first coined by UNESCO in 2002. Since its beginnings, OER is closely tied to the United Nation's education for all platform, including those with disabilities. There are many benefits, though a low cost is touted most among OER proponents (Bliss et al., 2013; Hilton et al., 2016; Ikahihifo et al., 2017). The standard quoted cost of books for community college students is $1200 per year (Gallion, 2018)—an exorbitant amount for some of the most vulnerable students.

Faculty are aware of the cost to students when selecting materials for their classes (McMurtrie, 2019).  The Washington State Community and Technical Colleges system implemented widespread adoption of OER in 2013 and estimated its use would save students $5.5 million in those early years of the program (Chae & Jenkins, 2016). Scholarship cautiously remarks how students who take courses using OER materials at least tend to do as well as or better than students in classes using the traditional textbooks (Hilton, 2020; Hilton et al., 2016).

The cost to students, however, is only one advantage of using OER. Advocates also highlight the ability to remix materials in ways that are both culturally relevant and accessible to many—honoring the diverse ways students connect to learning materials (Thomas, 2018). Heather Blicher, the coordinator of librarian services at Reynolds Community College, had this to say: “Because ... traditionally textbooks are written by ... white males. Western voices ... there are just so many other perspectives out there that aren't included when they could be. And when I think about students, especially students that attend community college, I think they want to hear those different voices.”

The growth of OER also aligns with universal design for learning—a framework that takes into account the diversity of learners in the classroom and draws on three core principles. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) outlines those tenets: providing multiple means of engagement, action and expression, and representation "through accessible embedded multimedia content" (CAST, 2020).

OER's Challenges


Students may pay nothing to access OER, but that does not negate cost. The time and energy to search for materials and adapt to context may be rewarding but significant. Faculty, administrators, and others involved in the process of transitioning to OER may not know where to start or search.

And then there are the questions about OER quality. Discussions of quality have not centered access for disabled students. This is problematic considering that many students with disabilities tend to begin their postsecondary journey at the community college (Peña et al., 2016; Wagner et al., 2005).

The Center for Inclusive Software for Learning (CISL), an arm of CAST, notes that most resources are not living up to the promise of proper access. In its research of OERs, CISL found that many OERS lack accessibility features, use inflexible formats, and are difficult to adapt (CISL, 2020). 

How accessible is the scanned PDF textbook to the student who needs to use speech-to-text software or a screen reader?

How accessible is the video that does not have captions for the hard-of-hearing or learning-disabled student?

If the resource creator has not already considered the document’s accessibility, it becomes burdensome to format it for an audience later. Of 10 well-known repositories, only three allowed users to search based on accessibility features (CISL: Research on OERs, 2020).

Other research supports this finding (Navarrete et al., 2019; Navarrete & Luján-Mora, 2018) and observes the scarce yet growing number of studies focused on the accessibility of OER materials (Moreno et al., 2018). 

Blicher also asserts the importance of making OER accessible as soon as it’s created: “It's just better to plan ahead and make sure that your content is accessible. And it's so much easier to do that, I believe, with OER than with other resources. In this way, if you approach it head on right from the beginning, before that content is loaded up, then you have no issues and everyone from the very first day can access that content.”

The quality-vetting process should investigate whether materials incorporate accessibility, universal design practices, and culturally sustaining principles. All are necessary to provide an equitable educational experience. Users of OER recognize there is a relatively small number of materials that feature Black, Indigenous, people of color, and various intersectional identities, including ability status and sexuality. OER advocates, like Blicher, similarly point to the lack of diverse content creators, which opens the potential for creation of biased material.

Where to Start

There are available resources and supportive communities, such as the Community College Consortium for OER (CCCOER), to guide OER newcomers. Faculty can look to their institutions' librarians and disability support centers for direction. Still, knowing where to start is a daunting task. Even leafing through different resources can be inundating, especially for the justice-minded educator who wants to ensure that material is accessible. Accessibility does not start with a checklist. Beginning the journey with resources like WCAG 2.0, which outline measures to ensure full use by disabled people, may confuse and overwhelm users who are unfamiliar with the terminology.

It starts with compassion and acknowledging that all students process information differently, whether they have disabilities or not. When we consider the purpose, promise, and power of education as a transformative tool to ignite and support our students' dreams and learning, this perspective, combined with an ethic of care and justice, drives our motivation to do more than provide access for the sake of checking off a to-do list. Access and equity are not the same, but access is undoubtedly needed to pursue justice. 

As colleges continue to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 and teaching remotely, OERs provide an opportunity to both decrease financial costs for students and institutions and facilitate the vital work of decolonizing education spaces—opening access to an array of students.



Bliss, T., Robinson, T. J., Hilton, J., & Wiley, D. A. (2013). An OER COUP: College Teacher and Student Perceptions of Open Educational Resources. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2013(1), 4.

Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of British Columbia. (2017). Open Dialogues: Open education and accessibility - YouTube.

Chae, B., & Jenkins, M. (2016). Developing an infrastructure support for faculty use of open educational resources: The case of the Washington State Community and Technical Colleges System. In F. Miao, S. Mishra, & R. McGreal (Eds.), Open Educational Resources: Policy, Costs and Transformation (pp. 211–222). UNESCO.

CISL: Research on OERs. (2020).

Gallion, J. C. (2018). North Dakota University System Open Education Resources. In Performance Audit Report: North Dakota University System Open Education Resources.

Hilton, J. (2020). Open educational resources, student efficacy, and user perceptions: a synthesis of research published between 2015 and 2018. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(3), 853–876.

Hilton, J., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & Williams, L. (2016). Maintaining momentum toward graduation: OER and the course throughput rate. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 17(6), 18–27.

Ikahihifo, T. K., Spring, K. J., Rosecrans, J., & Watson, J. (2017). Assessing the Savings from Open Educational Resources on Student Academic Goals Assessing the Savings from Open Educational Resources on Student Academic Goals Ikahihifo, Spring, Rosecrans, and Watson. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7).

McMurtrie, B. (2019). Professors Worry About the Cost of Textbooks, but Free Alternatives Pose Their Own Problems. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Moreno, N., Caro, E. T., & Cabedo, R. (2018). Systematic Review: OER and Disability. Colloquium in Information Science and Technology, CIST, 2018-Octob, 428–431.

Navarrete, R., & Luján-Mora, S. (2018). Bridging the accessibility gap in Open Educational Resources. Universal Access in the Information Society, 17(4), 755–774.

Navarrete, R., Penafiel, M., Tenemaza, M., & Lujan-Mora, S. (2019). Towards an accessible UX for people with disabilities in open educational resources websites. In T. Ahram & C. Falcao (Eds.), Advances in Usability and User Experience: Proceedings of the AHFE 2019 International Conferences on Usability & User Experience, and Human Factors and Assistive Technology, July 24-28, 2019, Washington D.C., USA (pp. 662–671). Springer.

Peña, E., Stapleton, L., & Schaffer, L. M. (2016). Critical perspectives on disability identity. New Directions for Student Services, 2016(154), 85–96.

Stewart, D. L. (2017). Language of Appeasement.

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005). After high school: A first look at the postsecondary experiences of youth with disabilities. A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2).


The above photo was modified and made available through the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.