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Alternative Textbooks (Open Educational Resources): Getting Started

This guide provides an overview of alternative textbooks (open educational resources) and offers assistance with finding, adopting, and creating them. © 2016-2021 University of Kentucky Libraries. Licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0.

What Are Alternative Textbooks (Open Educational Resources)?

To enhance the affordability of higher education and to create a student-centered learning environment, some educators have created, adopted, or adapted peer-reviewed instructional materials that are freely available online for reuse and modification.  Because of their flexibility and ready availability, such alternative textbooks are grouped under the umbrella term "open educational resources" (OER) or "affordable course content."

According to SPARC's Open Education initiative, OER are "teaching, learning, and research resources that are free of cost and access barriers, and which also carry legal permission for open use."  They facilitate access to knowledge and exist in different formats, including but not limited to full courses, course materials, openly licensed textbooks, learning objects, and software. 

OER democratize teaching and learning with the aid of the Internet and open licensing.  They lower the costs of education and conform to the 5R framework that enables users to:

  • Retain: Users have the right to make and own copies of the content;
  • Revise: Content can be adapted or updated;
  • Remix: The original or revised content can be combined with other content to create something new;
  • Reuse:  Content can be reused in various ways;
  • Redistribute: Copies of the content can be shared with others in its original, revised, or remixed form.

University of Kentucky faculty members who have questions about alternative textbooks or would like to create alternative textbooks are welcome to contact UK Libraries

Brief Overview of Open Educational Resources

Open Oregon has created an informative video to introduce educators to open educational resources (OER). The Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia discusses how the use of OER fosters equity. Faculty members at Tompkins Cortland Community College talk about improved student success outcomes, retention, teaching methods, and significant savings for students using OER.


Benefits of Alternative Textbooks (Open Educational Resources)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the costs of traditional college textbooks have skyrocketed over the years:

Price changes from January 2000 to December 2020

Open educational resources (OER) have emerged as a solution to the runaway problem of textbook costs because:

  • are based on a new model for disseminating knowledge that is designed to take full advantage of the digital environment to improve teaching, learning, and access to education 
  • grant blanket permission for full reuse rights, which facilitates further creation of OER and contributes to the public good.

SPARC and the Open Education Consortium have pointed out that OER benefit not only higher education but also society as a whole because:


  • can access OER online for free and thus are relieved of the financial burden of having to purchase expensive textbooks
  • can spend the savings on enrolling in more courses and complete their programs instead of dropping out
  • can retain, share, copy, paste, edit, adapt, and interact with the content for educational purpose


  • can draw on resources from around the world, customize them to suit their pedagogical and cultural needs, and find creative ways to help students
  • can update their instructional materials whenever necessary and expand their academic freedom in teaching
  • can retain and share their teaching materials with peers and network with educators internationally


  • can disseminate their instructional materials to a worldwide audience and receive attribution and international recognition

Lifelong learners:

  • can acquire new knowledge that helps them personally and professionally


  • can build businesses around OER by offering products or services that add value, such as assessments, software, or enhanced formats
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Jennifer Hootman
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