Using OER for Composition Classes: Benefits and Costs

There have been growing numbers of initiatives to decrease student costs through use of open educational resources (OERs) in recent years. This movement is an international one and recognizes the need to leverage the skills teachers and instructors have to compose and provide materials to help students and improve access. In the University of Maryland System (USM), the Kirwin Center of Academic Innovation has led such an initiative through the Maryland Open Source Textbook State Summits and a resource-website: They are only one in the many other university systems across the US developing similar initiatives. These include the City University of New York system, the California State University system, among others. A comprehensive list of such initiatives was put together by Sparc, a global coalition working to improve open education and research across the world.

In the space of these initiatives, Bowie State was able to translate our composition courses into OER composition courses. While we might still use handbooks, we mostly rely on OER textbooks for our courses. It has reduced student costs and improved access. On a more personal level, it has taught me that OERs are fantastic resources to teach composition. With this in mind, instructors need to be careful about how to implement them through course designs and be aware of the costs of time.

Extant Sources of OERs for Writing Education

Rhetoric and composition and first-year composition, especially, are particularly well placed to provide information and teaching materials in an open manner. Because much of the work we do and focus on is communication and writing, in particular, we don’t have to adhere to any proprietary materials. Though there are arguments to be made for instructing students on the best of humanities writing, and making sure writers are fairly compensated, it is also true that most of the money made by publishers on composition readers doesn’t really reach the writers.

Therefore, it is interesting to see how well rhetoric and composition has adapted to provide resources and materials useful for the writing class, and that can be delivered through any type of course management system or even an open-facing website, such as wordpress. For example, these are the resources I refer to when I design curriculum:

OER Commons: OER Commons is a freely accessible online library that allows teachers and others to search and discover open educational resources and other freely available instructional materials.

Libretexts: This is a large open access OER library of textbooks. It provides resources on a huge range of disciplines and fields.

Open Stax: OpenStax, another well resourced library, has created peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks, which are available in free digital formats and for a low cost in print. Most books are also available in Kindle versions on and in the iBooks Store.

WAC Clearinghouse Resources: The largest resource for all things college writing and composition. It provides both research and pedagogical resources. It also includes interesting academic monographs on writing theory, some of which are aimed at general audiences.

Writing Spaces: It is a book series containing peer-reviewed collections of essays—all composed by teachers for students—with each volume freely available for download under a Creative Commons license.

Owl Excelsior:Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL), an award-winning open education resource offering multimedia support for writing and reading. It provides a comprehensive list of resources for teaching writing and interactive tools to help with reading instruction.

Owl Purdue: The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University, the original writing resource repository, continues to be a valuable site of writing resources and instructional materials. It also includes a YouTube webseries, which can be found on OWLPurdue.

YouTube: There is everything on this site, as most users already know. However, the “do-it-yourself skills culture” that is fostered on this site also provides excellent resources to illustrate things to students as well as learn new techniques. YouTube is also important for consideration because it is the premier platform for the Video Essay, the newest genre in critical thinking and communication.

Wikipedia: As often as this source is looked at with suspicion, it continues to be the most pragmatic model we have for creating acceptable knowledge on the internet. Its process of peer reviewing and editorial collectives represents the ideals of “knowledge community.” Ways to make use of Wikipedia in the classroom are shown in this great essay: “Wikipedia is Good for You” by James Purdy.

Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments: It is a biannual, refereed online journal that publishes academic writing assignments accompanied by reflective essays. Its assignments are directed at both undergraduate and graduate students from all academic disciplines. It is an open-access journal, with all articles freely available to all readers.

Benefits: Materials Are Free and Accessible at All Times

My move towards OERs came about because of my practical experiences in the classroom. I found that no matter how carefully I designed my courses and aligned my course materials to use the textbooks, students simply did not buy the required materials. It made teaching extremely frustrating. Whether they were waiting on scholarship or still undecided on schedules, students often do not have the required materials at the beginning of the semester; they also forget to bring their textbooks to class even once they have purchased them. OERs and delivering them to students through Blackboard have been useful strategies to address this problem. Benefiting from the access these materials provide, I design a blackboard course shell before the semester begins with all the materials in appropriate folders (as I show in my screenshot of a draft course shell for Composition II). Students have access to all the materials from day one.  

Blackboard Course Shell for Argument and Research: I break down the materials from textbooks and OERs in terms of assignments and organize them into folders. Students can access them through the LMS site, and I can always pull them up during my classes using the project.

The pluses of this strategy are self-evident. Students now have access to the materials from day one and I can always ask them to pull-up the materials on their laptops or phones. In-class surveys I’ve taken during the semester always show that students appreciate that they did not need to purchase anything for the composition classes and can access materials through Blackboard. They also appreciated that they could be asked to look at the materials in the classroom on their phones (which I absolutely hate and think does no good for reading and real engagement).

Access to materials from the first day of class also helps students get out of their own way. When they wait around for a few weeks to get the materials, students fall behind on the activities. This in turn makes them feel overwhelmed when they do eventually get the materials and so they think “Might as well wait till next semester when I don’t have to do all this extra catch-up work.” Having the materials from the first day of class takes away this excuse from them and they can start working on the assignments, reading or writing, immediately.

Costs: Off-loading of Labor and Questions of Quality

No such thing as free lunch, as they say, and this is also true of OERs. While the materials might be free for students to use, it is not free for instructors to use (without some effort on their part to set it up.) A major issue of OERs is always that it requires a lot of labor from faculty to incorporate into the classes effectively. Using any sort of OER means designing it into a computer-mediated delivery system. It also means students need to have a level of literacy in that platform to use the OERs effectively. Practically speaking, it means instructors should spend at least the first week making sure students know and become familiar with where all the materials are and how to use the tools that are there. I am not being sarcastic when I say that students might be great on TikTok but that does not mean they will know how to use the LMS or course site.

Instructors also need to be careful about where they get their materials from and adequate licensing matter for the materials. The internet has made information accessible in ways never before possible, but this as also led to real questions about the actual things available and what counts as fair-use. These are very complex subjects and the resources listed above do vet certain things for fair-use in educational contexts. Aside from YouTube (which has more complex licensing question than I can talk about here, but which is referred to in many FAQs in university CETL centers) all the resource-lists I provided above curate their materials.

In sum, these are questions of labor and the amount of labor required of faculty and instructors. Such labor often would not be paid for by the universities where the instructors are working. However, there are also resources available that would compensate faculty for their work in designing and implementing OERs: Wikiepedia provides some grants for utilizing it in the course; there are open grants from a variety of resources that could be used to support OER implementation in the classroom; and finally, universities usually also offer small grants to their teachers implementing OER materials for their students. All those could be availed – the catch being that the funding organization would own the rights to the course and the design you might have come up with.


The use of OERs has become common across colleges and universities across the world. Maintaining the status quo is too expensive for students and faculty should try to help in any way we can to bring down costs. OERs provide the certainty that students will have the materials from day one. Their use is also a nice way to transform our pedagogies into the digital modes appropriate to current circumstances. Pedagogical modes are changing radically in the digital context, and we can use these new resources to minimize costs and foster student success.

Such initiatives come with costs and when using OERs, faculty need to be aware of those costs. Those of us interested in the use of OERs also need to support faculty implementation by supporting them through funds of time. It’s no use continuing to bury our heads in the sand on this matter.

A version of this was published in Bowie State’s Center for Teaching Excellence Newsletter in 2019.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s