How to Pay for Open

By | December 20, 2017

Open educational resources (OER) are free to the end user, but there are still costs associated with creating, maintaining, and teaching the material. One-time funding sources such as grants and legislative appropriations introduce the risk of not being renewed when we know that funding for this work will be needed over many years. Who will pay? Who will get paid? And is there an economic model that keeps funding flowing from the right sources, to the right people, to reliably continue this important work?

Steve Smith is the Director of eLearning and Instructional Technology Innovations at Linn-Benton Community College; he is also my supervisor. Last fall we conducted informational interviews with people who felt that their institutions had sustainable OER programs. Three of those interviews provided examples for this post.

You can read more about my thoughts on the term “sustainability” in relation to OER initiatives at “But is it sustainable?”

Model 1: Students pay through fees

Students currently pay an average of $100 per textbook. It is reasonable to consider whether students should pay a small fee when they take open courses. The students that I’ve spoken with usually support the idea of contributing back into the OER program in order to add more open courses to the schedule or maintain existing ones.

Kansas State University’s Open/Alternative Textbook Fee model is a good example of this concept. The structure is described in an IRRODL article, Cultivating Textbook Alternatives From the Ground Up: One Public University’s Sustainable Model for Open and Alternative Educational Resource Proliferation:

A $10 open/alternative textbook fee was proposed and recently approved for each student who enrolls in a course taught using what they refer to as open/alternative educational resources… A significant change here is that funding to develop OAER has transitioned from one-time to recurring due to the student course fee and is likely to incentivize those who administrate high-enrollment and -demand courses.

Steve and I spoke with two of the article’s authors, Brian Lindshield, Associate Professor, and Rebel Cummings-Sauls, Director, Center for the Advancement of Digital Scholarship. Brian and Rebel described several years of scrambling to find funding for faculty grants before they hit upon the fee model as a renewable resource to support OER adoption. The fee was implemented with student support.

Out of the $10 per student course fee, $9 goes back to the department, and $1 to support the OER initiative. Only courses that use approved open or alternative resources, and do not require other purchased course materials, are eligible for the fee. Departments can spend their share on any expense that meets university policies. The fee model has enabled the OER team to reach out to department heads whose units might benefit, offering new possibilities for scaling up the program from when they worked with instructors solely on an individual basis.

The $1 share for OER generated $4,000 during Fall 2016, the first money that the initiative hasn’t had to apply for, request, or receive a gift for. The money will be used as seed funding to launch new courses, and departments are encouraged to use their share to maintain and update existing open courses.

The K-State team has a big goal of transforming 75% of lower-division courses to open or alternative resources. In turn, teaching so many fee-eligible courses would sustain even more OER work, while reducing the need to be subsidized by other funds. This is an exciting example of a fee model that developed organically based on the needs of the university.

Model 2: Work with private companies

Two years ago I started writing a post called “What do you get when you pay for free?” Then, as now, there was a Wild West feeling regarding the startups and traditional publishers that seek to monetize openly licensed content that is freely shared. The post lingered as a draft as I realized that I wasn’t sure how to comprehensively cover the wide variety of private companies that offer different services, platforms, and price models for OER. There are now more options than ever for colleges that decide to pay for outside expertise, services, or content that they aren’t able to support in-house.

Adam Vorderstrasse, Senior Instructional Designer, Center for Instructional Technology, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, told Steve and me that his institution has a sustainable model for supporting their OER initiative that includes partnering with Lumen Learning. They are building out pathways for the Transfer General Education Core and a Transfer Single Articulation Pathway in business. Funding comes from an Open Material Selection Fee, which was first implemented when the college began working with Lumen.

Students pay a fee of $10 per student, per course. Half goes to Lumen for hosting the material, and half stays with the college for reinvestment and maintenance of open courses. The fee makes Ivy Tech’s OER program sustainable because they are able to develop new courses and maintain content already developed through the funding. By being transparent about money going towards the next iteration of open courses, the unit has been able to deflect skepticism about the fee.

Ivy Tech pays faculty members a $2500 stipend for development of open courses. The development process includes milestones such as alignment of course objectives, gap analysis with existing OER, and creation of multimedia and other ancillaries so that the open courses are competitive with publisher content. The process is overseen by the curriculum committee to vet new open content. Courses are maintained by another faculty member who is paid a $300 stipend to update the course, answer questions and monitor feedback from other faculty users, and ensure that the course is ready for the next term. Because Indiana has a centralized college system, master courses can be copied out to the entire state.

This is a good example of a sustainable public/private partnership. Lumen provides licensing help, course hosting, a common look and feel for materials, maintaining links to free online content, and other support. Ivy Tech receives ongoing student funding to support more OER work.

Model 3: Define OER as part of what we do

Jennifer Snoek-Brown, Faculty OER Librarian, Tacoma Community College, told us that at TCC, OER work is sustainable because of significant effort to incorporate it into the campus culture. Their goal is to lay a foundation of open culture and open pedagogy with administrative buy-in, as evidenced by TCC’s investing in Jennifer’s new OER librarian position. The college has a robust support staff for OER work: in addition to the new OER librarian, paid out of the library’s budget, there is also an OER coordinator/instructional designer in the eLearning department.

Because OER work takes place between departments, the OER steering group on campus is developing a workflow to connect the people working on the same projects across different departments. TCC also has an open education plan to help guide this work. Washington’s State Board of Community and Technical Colleges is committed to supporting OER, which helps the efforts at TCC feel sustainable.

What stood out as unique in talking with Jennifer about TCC is the culture of support for professional development activities, and the fact that TCC administrators see open pedagogy as part of an innovative approach to teaching and learning. Jennifer told us that TCC has planning days built into the schedule and professional development activities built into the faculty contract. The Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs drops OER into conversation even when he’s talking about other issues, which helps faculty feel that the work is integrated into other initiatives and priorities.


Because open education is still so new, relatively speaking, good ideas crop up all the time as people and institutions experiment with models to sustain this important work.

We know that piling projects onto ever-fuller plates leads to burnout. In particular, when I talk to librarians I get the sense that OER can be just one more thing we’re expected to take on without any additional support. As Meredith Farkas, faculty librarian at Portland Community College wrote recently in Less Is Not More, an article for American Libraries:

It’s important for libraries to identify organizational factors that might lead to burnout and for managers to protect their employees’ time. In the face of enthusiasm for a new service that could greatly benefit patrons, worrying about how it will be staffed long term can feel like negativity. But these conversations protect employees who may not even realize they’re taking on too much.

Meredith’s observations were echoed in the weekly journals and survey responses of librarians who participated in the Librarians as Open Education Leaders grant program. The librarians reported that they held up their end of the projects by “coming in early and staying late;” “work[ing] overtime;” and during “mostly stressed out evenings and weekends. Scrambling comes to mind.”

If OER is seen as something new that we add on to what we already do, it will require new funding to support it. If it’s considered part of what we already do, then we need to make space and time for this work within existing models.

Does your institution have a sustainable OER program, and if so, how is sustainability defined? Do you have ideas to contribute? Comments are open – please weigh in!


19 thoughts on “How to Pay for Open

  1. Pingback: “But is it sustainable?” –

  2. Katie Kirakosian

    What about a gofundme campaign for a particular project?

    1. openoregon Post author

      Hi Katie, that’s definitely out-of-the-box thinking! Thanks for commenting. Amy

  3. Richard L Saunders

    Missed one option–that OER creation and distribution replicates the income-stream model similar to commercial publishing. After a lot of thought, ultimately I think this is the most sustainable option because it replicates the generation, vetting, and distribution of scholarly work across institutions in ways that academia already values. The difference is that in an open-source model for publishing the income stream would recoup just enough from outright sales to cover costs, whether digital or print. This could perhaps be offset by institutional subsidies or the student fees, as you point out in the posting. Having a sustaining model other than an external source leaves the system vulnerable to changes in the future: a new student government that is anti-fees, a provost who cuts cost by eliminating subsidies, future staff cuts in financial exigency, etc. Each of these have affected institutions at which I have worked in the past decade, and a truly stable fiscal model must factor in such things or risk chronic instability.

    1. openoregon Post author

      Hi Richard, nicely put – chronic instability is a sure path to burnout. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Amy

  4. Dan McGuire

    Let’s start from the point that there is no scarcity of funds to pay for content. Students and libraries currently spend approximately $20 Billion in just the U.S. And, the thing about OER is that it is easier to share among various countries that traditional methods of publishing content. We just need create some diversions in the flow of money.
    If we stay with the notion that we’re trying to fund education and not create new profits for existing or new for-profit entities, this is a doable project. After all, presumably we should have some assistance from the best and brightest of Academia, well, OK, from some of them, anyway. Here are more of my thoughts on this

    1. openoregon Post author

      Hi Dan, you get right to the heart of the matter with your comment. I agree with you that the very best option is to frame this as funding education (it seems that you work with K-12 but the same applies to higher ed). If OER is understood as part of good course design, which is what we already do, then this work should be prioritized just like anything else that is integral to our mission. Thanks for commenting! Amy

  5. John Schoppert

    Hi Amy,
    I applaud Tacoma CC for supporting several positions that help adopt, adapt, and create OER. But how does TCC fiscally support faculty in their OER program? I seem the vaguely recall TCC having a student fee model for OER faculty stipends to sustain their program. Did you hear how they funded faculty time and efforts?
    I wish i could say Columbia Gorge CC has a solid sustainability program, but we don’t. We’re looking at adding contract language to out CBA this year for outside stipends, internal professional development programs, and faculty workload parameters. I hope (certainly expect) that this will add to continued support from CGCC administration.
    Thanks for the article,

    1. openoregon Post author

      Hi John, that’s a great question – I’ll ask Jennifer. About the sustainability of CGCC’s OER program, I wonder whether there’s a “critical mass” theory of sustainability. You’ve got so much work going on, and so many courses converted, that it would be difficult (and hard to explain to students) if the tide were to turn back the other way. I haven’t seen anyone talk about this yet, but I’d be curious about whether any colleges find themselves in this position. – Amy

    2. Jennifer

      Hi John!

      You are doing amazing (and award-winning!) work at CGCC, and it is so interesting to read about how there is no one answer or way to undergo and support OER in higher ed. I applaud this, and other, efforts by Open Oregon’s coordinator, Amy Hofer, to help shine a spotlight on different methods at sustaining and supporting open culture in education. Our whole point is sharing, right? :)

      And I’m so glad you, John, asked this follow-up question about TCC’s OER faculty support model. OER development funds for faculty on our campus do come primarily from our student tech/eLearning fees. The process begins with faculty first seeking approval for OER course development/revision from their deans/chairs, and then our eLearning director confirming funding availability. The OER development process is outlined in our faculty negotiated contract; stipend amounts for the development of new online and hybrid courses are equal to the applicable rate of teaching that same course, according to the part-time salary schedule. The stipend is paid half up-front and half upon completion of the course development project, after going through the evaluation rubric with our Instructional Designer. There are also stipends available for OER course revision, to help financially support faculty who want to keep their already-OER courses fresh and updated. To me, this demonstrates TCC’s long-term investment and commitment to OER.

      I hope this (abbreviated) info helps illuminate our efforts at (fiscally) sustainable OER and open culture at TCC! :)


      Jennifer Snoek-Brown
      OER Faculty Librarian, Tacoma Community College

      1. john schoppert

        Hi Jennifer,
        Wow! That’s exactly some of the information i need for our CBA negociations. I know I’m not the only one looking into this. I wonder if you could post the CBA language and the link for everyone to look at stipend scales and schedules. When I put out a call to listservs for contract language not many had formalized contract language. I think that would be important info for all.
        Also, what is your student tech fee? Do you have them broken down into labs/processing/general/distance ed./etc? The reason I ask is I’m getting preliminary push back from some faculty in asking for a fee add-on for OER sustainability. Some faculty don’t agree to the trend of supplanting textbook costs with OER course fees. Does TCC do a general across the board OER fee, or just fees for OER courses?
        Thanks for the very helpful info!

        1. Jennifer Snoek-Brown

          Hi John,

          It’s great to hear this information might be useful to you! I will email you personally to touch base on some of the more specific follow-up questions you have here, particularly regarding contract language. Our faculty contract is available online at

          Cheers, Jennifer

  6. Terry Greene

    Sell ad space in and amongst the OERs? Maybe we can get publishers to pay for OERs that way.

    1. Cheryl Cuillier

      Bookboon ebooks ( include advertising. They’re free for students to download or read online, but they’re not OER. A Bookboon account is required for access. Bookboon says, “We finance our textbooks with a small number of high-quality, employer branding advertisements. In other words, students’ future employers are paying for their textbooks. With a 15% advertising limit per book we ensure that the ads do not interfere with the academic quality and experience of our books.” I’d be curious what students think about having ads in their ebooks.

      1. openoregon Post author

        Hi Terry and Cheryl, I have to admit that I feel squeamish about this idea – though, as Cheryl points out, it would be very interesting to learn what students think. My objections run along two tracks. First, after we’ve done our best to create good design that reduces cognitive load and helps students make the most of materials, it seems counterproductive to re-introduce distracting ad content that isn’t related to the purpose of the work. Second, it’s uncomfortable to think about educational materials as a commercial space. This calls to mind the recent demo that Barnes & Noble did in an OpenStax webinar where they showed off the platform that students use to purchase textbooks with a Geico insurance banner ad at the top of the page. What is our relationship to students? Are they customers or learners? Two cents, Amy

  7. Cheryl Cuillier

    Portland State University has successfully financed OER publishing through donations from donors. Raising money by working with your library’s development office or university foundation might be an option.

    1. openoregon Post author

      This is a great point – thank you! Amy

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