Skip to content

Lack of Awareness is the Biggest Obstacle for Open Educational Resources


A recent study from the Babson Survey Research Group reveals a lot of curiosity amongst higher education faculty members about OER, but a significant lack of awareness.

You may know a few things already about Open Educational Resources (OER), but according to a recent study conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, you may not.

Open Educational Resources, defined by the Hewlett Foundation as “teaching, learning, and research resources” that are either in the public domain or are released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use, have a remarkable ability to reshape the way we approach education. OER can include everything from full courses to select modules, textbooks, video material, software, tests and more. These incredible reserves of openly accessible material have already been put to use in many colleges and universities, and have even become the basis for new educational models.

At University of the People, for example, OER is a cornerstone of the university’s ability to provide a comprehensive and quality online education with no tuition costs for students.

But despite the willingness of some institutions to adopt OER, others are either reluctant or simply unaware of the existence of OER. Curious about a systemic lack of engagement with OER, the Babson Survey Research Group set out to determine why these resources were routinely being overlooked. In the course of the survey, Babson questioned over 3,000 faculty members at institutions of higher learning on the subject of OER in general and also about Open Textbooks, a subset of OER materials defined as “textbooks that are freely available with nonrestrictive licenses.”

The survey revealed that most of the surveyed participants were unaware of OER, but that they were also interested and willing to explore the issue further. Despite scattered interest and curiosity, however, OER were simply not a reported “driving force” in how faculty members select material. The most significant factor in the selection of materials, according to the response of the participants, was cost.

Despite this, there was a significant disconnect between the assertion of faculty members that “cost to students” was the most significant factor in choosing materials, and the reality – which is that their students are still facing very high costs when it comes to educational resources.

What’s more likely, the survey authors suspect, is that cost is an important factor for faculty, but not the most important. The fact that it is reported as “most important” could rather be a sign that high cost is a big concern amongst faculty, but not necessarily one that they are willing to tackle by sacrificing quality or comprehensiveness of materials.

This seems understandable.No one wants their students to suffer financially from the cost of textbooks, but for students who are already investing a great deal financially in their education, it would be fruitless to choose low-quality materials simply because they are cheap. As one faculty member responding to the survey noted, “To my students, cost is the most important thing. To me, content is the most important.”

In addition to the lack of awareness of Open Educational Resources – which offer an opportunity to faculty members to address both cost and copyright issues of classroom material – the survey revealed a significant lack of awareness also about copyright issues in general, which could be another contributing factor to the non-adoption of OER in higher education settings.

Still, the main factor is doubtless the lack of awareness of the resources themselves. “Only 6.6% of faculty reported that they were ‘Very Aware’ of Open Educational Resources, with around three times that many (19%) saying that they were ‘Aware.'” Awareness of Open Textbooks was even lower. One surveyed faculty member was quoted saying, ““I am curious and intrigued by these educational resources, but simply do not know enough about them to effectively evaluate them.” This stance seems to be a common view of OER amongst survey participants.

Despite this underuse of OER and lack of awareness, however, faculty members were largely in agreement that OER will be increasingly important to education as time goes by. At this point in time, Open Educational Resources remain widely underutilized, but those who have adopted OER will wholeheartedly attest to the benefits. For example, University of the People has successfully leveraged the use of these materials to provide tuition-free degree programs to their students.

Despite the challenges presently faced by OER, it is hard not to imagine these resources taking hold as a widely-used, cost-efficient educational tool. As a full-time mathematics faculty member who participated in the survey expressed, quite succinctly, “Knowledge is free. The future of education must be in OER.” This is a sentiment that many of us feel is true about knowledge.

But there is a paradox. Knowledge, we know, is free. It is not a commodity. Nor is wisdom.

But education has traditionally come at incredibly (and increasingly) steep costs.

It’s possible that OER could play a role in untangling this knotty paradox and democratizing the way we impart knowledge and education to students, but this will never happen until we address the central issue revealed by the Babson Survey Research Group – which is the simple, yet humongous, issue of awareness.