Newswise — ​​​​​​In these challenging times, the California State University continues to develop ways to reduce students' expenses while maintaining a high-quality education. The CSU's Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) is an innovative program that enables faculty to choose and provide more affordable (and even free) quality educational content for students across the 23 CSU campuses.

Resources like MERLOTCOOL4EdSkills Commons and various library resources represent the variety of programs and partnerships that make up this cost-saving institutional initiative. By reducing CSU student course material expenses, more students acquire the educational resources they need to succeed, supporting equitable access—which is central to the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025. In fact,  AL$ funds more than $450,000 each year in CSU campus grants to reduce course material costs for students.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing college courses into online instruction, open educational resources (OER) are ideal because they are almost all digital and can be embedded into the campus's learning management systems (LMS).

“I'm thankful that I use OER because it was one less thing I needed to worry about to support student success during the transition to remote instruction," says Shelli Wynants, Ed.D., director of online education and training at Cal State Fullerton, who teaches a research methods course.  

“I knew all my students had access to their course content from day one and I didn't have to worry whether they bought the book, or whether they could afford to do so.  At least that part of the transition was seamless because they were already reading their free OER text online," Dr. Wynants adds. 


Equity and Flexibility

“This program is about digital and equitable access for students, and now it's more timely than ever given the landscape that institutions of higher education will be facing in the coming weeks and months," says Leslie Kennedy, Ed.D., interim assistant vice chancellor of Academic Technology Services at the CSU Chancellor's Office. 

A longtime leader in the OER space, the CSU began its MERLOT repository in the 1990s and today it offers more than 90,000 free open educational resources that can be searched by discipline. As faculty continue to evolve their e-learning approaches, free and low-cost digital resources are critical to student success. “Having access to materials that they otherwise probably wouldn't purchase also reduces the student's stress," Kennedy says.

​For faculty, OER and low-cost options offer more freedom and flexibility to design the courses as they want, Kennedy explains. Sometimes an instructor may want only a few chapters from a textbook, and OER allows them to customize and pick chapters from various resources to be more relevant to what the students are learning.  This also helps students who don't want to pay for an entire textbook from which they'll only use a few chapters.

“My favorite thing about OER is what I call 'academic freedom on steroids,'" says Wynants. "I love that I can choose Creative Commons licensed OER that lets me adapt and customize the content to fit the way I teach, and I can add my sense of humor to the reading material with examples and images to make it more personalized for the students."

The AL$ Immediate Access Program is one low-cost option that has been gaining traction recently, says Kennedy. The program, which models a pilot developed by San Diego State University​, allows students immediate access to course materials without having to pay right away. They can then decide to opt in or opt out to purchase the materials by the course add/drop deadline. They have a choice between renting or buying the print book or accessing a significantly discounted digital version of the book, thanks to partnerships between the campus bookstores and the publishers.

Kennedy explains that the program has been popular with many faculty because it allows them to keep using a preferred textbook while also extending a cost-saving option to their students.


Growing Awareness

AL$ data shows an increased growth of adoption and awareness of free and low-cost materials across the CSU. “While we are still on the far side of the adoption curve, we're getting closer to that tipping point, some people would say. This is a worldwide phenomenon happening," Kennedy says, speculating that the whole country going digital overnight could push us over that tipping point.

​​The majority of the CSU campus's Academic Senates have adopted resolutions supporting the AL$ initiative, which has given faculty more confidence in OER and encouraged them to be more willing to switch to new no- and low-cost resources, says Kennedy.

Still, there is more work to be done to raise awareness of these resources. “A lot of times the faculty don't know exactly where to go to find these materials," Kennedy explains, so AL$ coordinators on each campus are working to educate instructors and students about the many available tools through engagement events and other outreach.

AL$ is also launching an awareness campaign—AL$ Lends a Hand (#ALSlendsahand)—to empower students to continue their education through the use of OER to bridge some of the material that may not be covered in their courses due to last-minute instructional shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn more about the CSU's Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$).

​​​Did You Know?

  • The open educational resources (OER) movement emerged in the mid-1990s, thanks to the creation of the CSU's MERLOT repository. (MERLOT stands for Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching.) Source: Educause 2020 Horizon Report
  • Campus bookstores and libraries play a key role: Faculty are required to notify bookstores regarding planned resources for upcoming courses, and the bookstores share those lists with campus libraries. The library then combs through its own collection for matches and compiles a web page for that course with links to free resources.
  • In 2018-19, 338,012 students were served through campus AL$ program​s. That is 70.3 percent of total CSU student enrollment.
  • Due to the outstanding efforts by AL$ campus coordinators, faculty, staff, and the campus stores, the 2018-2019 AL$ reports show over $50M in student savings.
  • More than 8,000 AL$ grant courses reduced or eliminated course material costs.