Open Education Week 2021: Open Educational Resources in the Age of COVID

I’ve been talking for a while on this blog about open education and how it can lower costs for students while at the same time bring new, invigorating practices to the classroom. But when the pandemic hit last year, open educational resources (OER) became a solution to a problem that was now more urgent than ever before.  

As a result of the pandemic, many students have been struggling financially. Access to physical books — for example, reserves in the library which before the pandemic had been one strategy students could use to lower textbook costs — were disrupted. Supply chains for print books were interrupted during the pandemic as well. At some institutions, students had left campus for Spring Break only to find themselves unable to return to get their textbooks. Some students were forced to withdraw from a course or drop out of college altogether because of personal illness or a sick family member, caretaking responsibilities for children who were not able to attend school, or a financial crisis, potentially losing whatever money they had invested in non-refundable textbooks or access codes.  

Free, online educational materials offer a solution to these issues. A free textbook doesn’t create a financial burden for students. An online learning module can be accessed from anywhere via the Internet, and there’s no risk to students whose educational plans are interrupted of not being able to get a refund for free materials like OER. 

OER can also solve some issues that faculty experience when moving classes online. They are digitally native and can be easily incorporated into online learning. They can be freely adapted, so they can be updated, remixed, or edited with examples relevant to the local community. In a class using an open textbook, all students have the material on day one of classes and are ready to learn. 

Calls for OER adoption  

With these benefits of OER in mind, UNESCO issued a statement in April of 2020 encouraging the development and adoption of OER as a solution. The Call for Joint Action Supporting Learning and Knowledge Sharing through Open Educational Resources states, in part: “The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a paradigm shift on how learners of all ages, worldwide, can access learning. It is therefore more than ever essential that the global community comes together now to foster universal access to information and knowledge through OER.”  The authors also identified OER as an essential strategy for ensuring continuity of education in a crisis. Similarly, the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental educational organization, recommended the adoption of OER as a strategy to provide quality learning materials to students forced to study online by COVID-19. 

Education researchers also identified OER as a solution to the pandemic-induced education crisis. For example, in the article “Disrupted Classes, Undisrupted Learning During COVID-19 Outbreak in China”, published in the journal Smart Learning Environments, the authors argued for the adoption of open educational resources and practices to address the interruption of education in China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, suggesting that existing OER could be used to easily develop courses being quickly transitioned to online delivery, and that open pedagogical practices could increase student engagement in the online environment. 

Growth in OER adoptions and use 

In fact, OER adoptions increased over the last year. Here are a few examples. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, OER adoptions increased 25 percent in 2020, and a grant program at that university received 3 times more applications than in a typical year from faculty interested in adopting or creating OER. According to the Open Education Network, a number of universities are also reporting increased demand for workshops and training on open education, particularly from faculty moving courses online or to a hybrid format. At Austin Community College, the number of class sections with zero textbook costs almost doubled between summer 2019 and summer 2020. While it isn’t clear that the pandemic was the reason, the growth was astonishing. Meanwhile, at MIT Open Courseware, they saw a 75% increase in website sessions in April 2020 over the previous year. 

The bottom line is: the COVID-19 pandemic presents us with serious challenges that are not going to go away overnight. Open educational resources and practices can help us confront those challenges successfully, keeping more students in college, helping them graduate more quickly, and helping faculty engage students in their classes with interactive pedagogies, in spite of the disruptions they are facing due to this global public health crisis. 

To learn more about open education, please contact me at, or visit our Open Educational Resources Research Guide. For more information about Open Education Week events happening around the globe this week, see our Open Education Week 2021 guide.