I recently overheard a student complain about being required to purchase a new textbook for their business course. The book cost about one hundred dollars new but they were hoping to save money by purchasing used. Unfortunately, used wasn’t an option as the text included an access code for ancillary publisher materials made available online. Since the access codes are non-transferable, only new texts are made available in the bookstore for students enrolling in the class. Another student said that they were hoping to get by without the text as it was “too expensive”.  Although I don’t know how frequently this happens, it’s not the first time I’ve heard of students trying to manage without the required textbooks for their college courses.

In a recent experimental study published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education, researchers found that students using open educational resources (OERs), including open textbooks, performed as well or better, in regards to completion rates and final grades, than students using commercial textbooks (Fisher et al 2015).

The study includes a sample size of 16,727 students from four universities and six community colleges with 4909 students in the “treatment condition” using OERs for their courses, and 11,818 in the control group using commercial textbooks.

The study compared student course completion, passing grade, and number of credits students took during a semester. Results indicated student completions were approximately the same for both the control and treatment groups with the exception of a couple of courses where attrition was somewhat higher for students in the control group. Grades were also mostly similar for the students in both groups with the majority of courses, although a few courses indicated students using the commercial text scored somewhat higher.

The most significant difference between the treatment and control groups was in the credit load – students in the treatment condition averaged 13.29 credit hours, while the control group averaged 11.14 hours. It may be that the savings students experienced using the OERs over the commercial text permitted more resources to be used for tuition.

It would be interesting to know some of the details in cases where students using OERs outperformed those using commercial texts. Perhaps these are the students who would otherwise have tried to get by without a “too expensive” textbook and later in the semester decided to drop or fail. Regardless of the reason, students using OERs stayed the course, and by enrolling in more courses may indeed cross the finish line that much earlier.


Fischer, L., Hilton III, J., Robinson, T.J.,Wiley, D.A. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post secondary students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12528-015-9101-x