Study links free digital textbooks to improved grades, equity

Results from a new study suggest that students who receive free materials at the beginning of a college course perform markedly better than those asked to purchase a textbook, Inside Higher Ed reports. According to the study authors, the academic improvements were especially dramatic “for the student populations [they] hypothesized would benefit the most from free textbooks,” including those eligible for federal financial aid and those historically underserved by postsecondary education.

The study, conducted at the University of Georgia, looked at eight large undergraduate courses whose professors switched from having students pay for a textbook to giving students free digital textbooks, or open educational resources (OER), instead. The research included 21,822 students of biology, history, psychology, and sociology, 11,681 of whom used commercial textbooks costing $100 or more, and 10,141 of whom used free digital resources.

The professors observed the final grades of students enrolled in the courses between 2010 and 2016, and found that after the switch, the number of A and A-minus grades increased by 5.50 percent and 7.73 percent, respectively, while the number of students who withdrew or were awarded D or F grades fell by 2.68 percent, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Exploring OER’s implications for equity

The study also marked the first large-scale research exploring OER’s impact on students from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, said study co-author C. Edward Watson. While OER adoption was associated with better grades for all students studied, it had a “more pronounced impact” for underprepared, low-income, and historically underserved student populations. Noting that “students can’t learn from materials they can’t afford,” Nicole Allen, director at SPARC—a group that advocates for OER use—said “the most important finding of this study is that it directly links OER with equity.”

Study prompts calls for even more rigorous research

While acknowledging the promising results, other experts raised questions about the single-institution study’s methodology and its applicability to other schools with different student populations. They noted that a number of variables could have influenced the results, including an increasingly selective admissions process, additional support provided to professors switching to OER, and more engaging instruction as professors gained experience with OER.

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