Do you get what you pay for? Publisher Educational Content versus OERs


Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

We all know the expression “You get what you pay for” (for older and more classical Brits reading this, “a bad bargain is dear at a farthing”. Although such proverbs and clichés are often true, this one is generally used as an excuse to sell something at a very high price. You can hear the sales guy talking: “This Rolex might be expensive yes, however the quality is unrivalled; the ultimate choice”.

Another example, probably closer to home for most of us, is the high costs of school books. Publishers use the ‘high quality’ argument as a reason to ask for high prices. After all, so they argue, they have invested a lot of time and money in attracting top authors, who they then support with editors, designers, and, sometimes, even an educational expert.

They’re trying to convince schools, school boards, and parents to buy books and other educational materials from them, because: “Quality Is Our Strength”. However, who knows? Maybe their slogan should actually be: “Convincing You that We Sell Quality Is Our Strength”?[1]

The question that this blog addresses is: Is it fair that governments, schools, and parents have to pay a lot of money for “quality” in the educational materials that their children use (and that they themselves use in the case of continuing or lifelong education and learning) while free and easily accessible information and source materials are an everyday reality in today’s world? It’s not only that; open educational resources (OERs) are on the rise. These open educational materials are available for free and include open licences for (re)use and editing by teachers and students; sometimes completely open, sometimes with some conditions. Possibly the most common licenses makes use of the condition that you can edit the material if you intend to give future users permission to use and edit your materials, that it is attributed to you, but that the user is not using it for commercial purposes[2]. This follows the principle of equal sharing, or copyleft instead of copyright along with the condition that you can’t use any materials for commercial purposes.

In two large-scale studies where teachers created OER-only educational books from materials that were available to them for free, researchers studied whether the slogan “You get what you pay for” is true or not for educational materials.

One of those studies was carried out in American vocational education institutions and has analysed how learning outcomes with OER educational materials compare to learning outcomes with materials that were purchased from educational publishers. The study included 16,727 students. Of these students, 4,909 used OER materials and 11,818 used educational publisher’s content. The materials were for the subjects math, English, psychology, biology, science, business, and history.

In a second study, this time at a regular high school, the researchers determined if students who used OER materials (books were at a cost of $5 each – for just-in-time electronic printing – and e-books were available at no cost) achieved different learning outcomes than students who used “regular”; that is publisher books. This study had 4,183 student participants and 43 teacher participants and focussed on subject such as geography, biology, and science.

Both studies showed that learning results with OER materials were at least the same and often significantly better than learning outcomes achieved with publisher content. In other words, the OER materials (the cheap) were at least as good, if not better, than those of educational publishers (the expensive).

And what about teachers? Bliss et al., (2013) studied the acceptance of open learning materials by both students and teachers. Half of the students thought that the quality of the OER materials was the same as that of publisher content and 40% even thought that the OER materials were better. For the teachers, these percentages were 55% and 35% respectively. Based on survey results, Pitt (2015) concluded that – according to teachers- OER materials not only led to more satisfied students, it also helped teachers better respond to student needs, made teaching easier, and sometimes even led to changes within their own, ingrained teaching methods.

Now that we know that OER materials are as good or even better than publisher content, we can explore what this could mean from a financial perspective, especially in today’s world where schools usually have very tight budgets. As the first author of this blog works in a Dutch situation, we look at a commonly used Dutch method called Rekenrijk (EN: Math Kingdom), which is a commonly used method for maths in elementary school. According to the publisher, Noordhoff, the cost for this package comes down to €41,000 ($45,000, £32,500). This is based on a school size of 200 students with 8 groups of 25 students and a licence for 8 years, including student and teacher software. To compare: the OER materials as studied in the research would cost $1,000 (€900, £720)!

Will e-books be cheaper in the future? Not very likely. Publishers don’t sell e-books, they rent them out. As a user, you generally receive a personal user licence and when the licence expires, you can no longer use the e-book. For example, some publishers offer a licence for only one school year and that licence expires automatically. Also, something quite inconvenient, a lot of e-books have a security feature so that you cannot print the e-book (this is called Digital Rights Management). So, if you prefer to read from paper instead of a screen, that’s a real disadvantage.

Time Magazine has calculated that a new educational paper-based book on Amazon that cost $100 to purchase would cost $34 to rent for one school year. So, renting an e-book is cheaper if a school only uses the content for 3 years. However, if we look at the normal age of books being used by a school, the school would use the materials for many more years (in California the average replacement of a textbook takes place after at least 6-7 years) and the savings melt away as snow in the spring and actually become extra costs. Also, while this might seem to be a boon for college students who rent e-books themselves, “e-textbooks can’t be returned or the rental period terminated early if a student drops a class. They also can’t be resold at the end of the semester to recoup a portion of the book’s cost”.

Getting back to the OER materials, the University of Georgia has estimated that since 2013 their students have saved approximately $2 million (almost £1.5 million) through OER adoption. According to Edward Watson, director of their Center for Teaching and Learning their approach has been “to pursue large enrollment courses using expensive textbooks. This has enabled us to maximise savings for students.”

Of course the calculations are much more complicated and should also include time invested by teachers and students to write and edit materials, write off for computers, electricity, etcetera. Other components that cannot be expressed in money, but that are at least as important are not discussed here either, such as perceptions and emotions that students and teachers experience, for example teachers experience a great sense of satisfaction when they contribute to or create OERs.

So, although we acknowledge that the picture is a bit more complicated than discussed in this blog, one thing seems quite obvious. Given the rapidly increasing amount of research at OER material, policy makers, politicians, school boards, schools, and teachers really need to scratch their heads and consider if it’s an ethically and financially responsible choice to buy traditional educational books and materials while there might be alternatives that are cheaper and just as good or even better.



Bliss, TJ., Hilton, J., Wiley, D., & Thanos, K. (2013).: Perceptions of Community College Faculty and Students. First Monday, 18(1).

Fischer, L., Hilton, J., Robinson, J., & Wiley, D. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 27(3), 159-172.

Pitt, R. (2015. Mainstreaming open textbooks: Educator perspectives on the impact of OpenStax college open textbooks. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(4), np.

Robinson, J., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2014). The Impact of Open Textbooks on Secondary Science Learning Outcomes. Educational Researcher,43, 341-351.


[1] One of the authors started his career working for a large educational publisher after getting his master in the topic ‘text characteristics and learning processes’. He began idealistic as he was thinking that he would help ensure that quality was their advertisement. He left less than four years later, disillusioned but wiser, after realising that their slogan was more like “Adverstising is our quality”.

[2] This is known as CC Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC): This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.


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