An Open Letter for Open Educational Resources

 To the faculty and administrators of the college, 

When I arrived at Amherst College as an international student on financial aid two years ago, I was shocked by the prices of the textbooks required for my classes. A significant proportion of the budget that I set aside for living expenses would actually have to go to books, I realized, and I was left with little help from the college.

As I explored the various courses offerings of the History and Political Science departments, it struck me that I would have to purchase a total of 20 to 30 books for just four courses. Certain professors expressed a strong preference for hard copies of books, too, in order to minimize the distractions that electronics might pose in a classroom. Despite the fact that we would only be focusing on excerpts from these books, we were also expected to obtain whole copies at our own expense. 

Even with that financial sacrifice, I ultimately had to opt out of a class I was particularly interested in because I simply could not afford all of the required books. Although I sympathize with the concern about the distraction that online resources may cause, it is not fair that such an assumption precludes some students from taking the courses they like, as with professors who disallow digital devices in class. 

I eventually learned about the option to purchase used textbooks, and occasionally was able to access required texts online through our library system. And I’ve been fortunate to take several courses with professors who made materials for their classes entirely available online for free. However, the problem of accessibility remains in my other courses, not to mention the impact finances had on my first year when I was still unaware of the limited alternatives mentioned earlier. 

I urge Amherst College to take a much stronger initiative in publicizing alternatives such as used books and the library system. But further than this, I would like to call upon the administrators of our college to implement an official campus-wide Open Educational Resources initiative through faculty grants. OER are freely available, openly licensed resources used for teaching, learning, assessment and research purposes. To point to a specific example, UMass successfully launched their OER initiative in Spring 2011 and according to their website, “has generated a total savings of over $2.3 million for students.” Not only increasing access, and eliminating costs for students, OER also provides more room for professors to customize their curriculums and make them more engaging. 

Students should not have to make choices about their Amherst education based solely on what is accessible and affordable. They should be able to take any course that sparks their interest without financial stress! While one solution could simply be asking professors to limit their courses to accessible resources, we should similarly avoid limiting teaching quality based on the availability of free articles and books. Rather, the college should make accessibility to academic resources a priority, especially in the midst of a pandemic, when students studying off-campus have even less direct access to Amherst resources. For a college that boasts that its financial aid allows students to choose a college based on “educational objectives” rather than cost and has a $2.5 billion endowment, this isn’t an impossibility — it’s common sense.