This is the time of year that new laws go into effect in Virginia. It also is a time when we can reflect on those laws passed a year ago. One law in Virginia receiving little fanfare was HB 454, a law requiring higher education institutions’ governing boards “to develop guidelines for the adoption and use of low-cost and no-cost open educational resources in courses offered at such institution.” The law was in response to the escalating costs of textbooks.

College students should not have to choose between nourishing their minds with knowledge and nourishing their bodies with food. Unfortunately, the rising cost of a college education, including the skyrocketing costs of textbooks and other course materials, have forced many students to have to choose between the two. In fact, a recent national study found that more than one-third of college students faced food insecurities and one in five reported not eating when they were hungry because they lacked money.

Politicians, university administrators and faculty are engaging in efforts to control the costs of a college education.

I am proud to say that at Old Dominion University we already have developed different initiatives promoting the use of free resources in our courses. Working with Tidewater Community College, for example, we recently created what appears to be the nation’s first textbook-free pathway to a bachelor’s degree with a major in leadership. In this initiative, funded by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, faculty at ODU integrated open education resources into 16 of our upper-level courses.

Courses such as Leadership Ethics, Digital Writing and Principles of Information Technology were taught as textbook-free courses over the past year, with faculty integrating open resources in lieu of textbooks into the courses. In the Principles of Information Technology class, rather than paying $230 for their textbook, students were assigned open educational resources to supplement their coursework.

Across all 16 of these courses, students saved more than $100,000 by using open educational materials. Out of this initiative, one of our chemistry professors created open access materials so students would not have to purchase textbooks for introductory chemistry courses. Her efforts saved students more than $250,000 in textbook costs.

Our faculty members also are becoming leaders in producing open educational materials that they use in their courses and that others across the world can use. Faculty members in our Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, for instance, recently created an open access course on Cybersecurity Risk Management for the National Security Agency.

Another group of faculty members from five different departments — computer science, computer engineering, criminal justice, information technology and philosophy — created an open access course called Cybersecurity, Technology, and Society. Because the course meets one of our general education requirements, this course is in high demand both on-campus and online. The cybersecurity course materials are available to all members of our community at no cost.

Take a moment and consider what this means. Anyone in the world who wants to learn about cybersecurity, regardless of their expertise or disciplinary background, will be able to access this cybersecurity material and use it to improve their lot in life. There will be no charge, no password and no prerequisite for accessing this knowledge.

While a price tag cannot be placed on such knowledge, the value of this knowledge can be summed up in one word: priceless. Scientific and academic knowledge is an equalizing force in our society. Putting a high price tag on that knowledge exacerbates inequality and unfairly disadvantages those who were not born into wealthy families.

It is important for universities to commit to institutionalizing open educational resources. Eliminating this inequality not only makes knowledge accessible, more importantly, it nourishes students’ minds and their bodies.

Brian K. Payne is vice provost for academic affairs and a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University. Contact him at bpayne@odu.edu.

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