OER in K-12 Education - What does the research tell us?

Student discussion at a table

By Austin Beck

With the momentum of the K-12 open movement, including the #GoOpen campaign, it is an important time to take a look at the research on K-12 OER adoption. Looking at the research reveals what we understand about OER and where we need to do more work to fill in knowledge gaps that will keep the open movement on the right track.

Introduction to Research on OER

Because of the growing importance of OER, scholars have begun to research and publish work specifically on open resources in the education space. The Open Education Group, a group of researchers working to develop a deeper understanding of OER, posts a running review of the literature on OER adoption. At the end of the review, the Open Education Group summarizes the results of the studies and they conclude that:

       "students and teachers generally find OER to be as good or better than traditional textbooks;"

       "students do not perform worse when utilizing OER;"

      "students, parents and taxpayers stand to save literally billions of dollars without any negative impact on learning through the adoption of OER."

Research on OER in K-12

These conclusions were made generally about OER, but they stem from a body of work focused mainly on OER in higher education in the U.S. The body of research on K-12 OER use in the U.S. is much smaller. The academic literature shows three peer-reviewed studies on K-12 OER use. Here is a short summary of each one:

Study 1: The Impact of Open Textbooks on Secondary Science Learning Outcomes

In this study, researchers looked at data to compare how students using open and traditional textbooks performed in their science classes. In the study, researchers compared 1,274 students using open textbooks that teachers compiled and printed for students to 1,274 similar students using traditional textbooks. After controlling for student characteristics and teacher effects, researchers found that students using open textbooks scored significantly higher on standardized tests than students using traditional textbooks. When examining specific courses, researchers didn't find significant differences in outcomes in earth systems and biology courses, but they did find that students using open textbooks in chemistry courses performed significantly better (Robinson, Fischer, Wiley, & Hilton, 2014).

Study 2: A Preliminary Examination of the Cost Savings and Learning Impacts of Using Open Textbooks in Middle and High School Science Classes

In this two part study, researchers describe the costs associated with printing open resources and how to diminish those costs, and the impact of using open textbooks on test scores. Researchers used data from teachers and students in three large public school districts in Utah. They found that adaptation and printing costs could add up quickly, but that the cost of using OER could be diminished if groups of teachers across a district used the same version of a text, removed irrelevant information, printed in black and white, and printed large numbers of the resource at one time. They also provided a descriptive analysis of the impact of open textbook adoption on test scores, which was a precursor to study one highlighted above (Wiley, Hilton, Ellington, & Hall, 2012).  

Study 3: "Opening" a New Kind of School: The Story of the Open High School of Utah

This publication is in a peer reviewed journal, but it is not an empirical study like the first two studies profiled. This article introduces the Open High School of Utah and shares a model of how open schools could work. Researchers describe the integration of OER in the classroom, content vetting, content delivery, and challenges to getting an open online school up and running (Tonks, Weston, Wiley, & Barbour, 2013).

From these studies we see positive signs that the move towards OER can greatly benefit our K-12 school systems. Still, it is difficult to make broad generalizations about the impact of OER in K-12 education from these three studies alone.

Going Forward

While the academic research on K-12 OER is just beginning, we still have lots of evidence from case studies and white papersthat show the benefits of expanding OER in our public schools. In the coming years, we need to develop a broader base of knowledge that can guide OER implementations.  

The academic opportunities to study K-12 OER use are wide open and research from any field and from any perspective will greatly benefit our understanding of OER. Here are some examples of work that could be done to further develop understanding and practice:

       More qualitative work that reveals why the OER implementations made an impact. Interviews with students and teachers may help uncover             specific aspects of OER that made changes in how teachers teach or students learn.

       More work on OER and its impact on educational equity. The Department of Education points to OER as a driver of equity and it is crucial to             understand if it really can increase equity, and in what ways.

      The two empirical studies highlighted above focused on print resources. More work on how OER can be used and distributed digitally to                    improve school outcomes would benefit schools in the midst of the digital revolution that is taking place.

     The need for more research is clear. It can help schools and districts better understand all aspects of OER - from design of OER to its economic       impacts - and use open resources to promote a more equitable approach to education.


Robinson, T. J., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2014). The impact of open textbooks on secondary science learning outcomes. Educational Researcher, 43(7), 341-351.

Tonks, D., Weston, S., Wiley, D., & Barbour, M. K. (2013). "Opening" a new kind of school: The story of the Open High School of Utah. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(1), 255-271.

Wiley, D., Hilton III, J. L., Ellington, S., & Hall, T. (2012). A preliminary examination of the cost savings and learning impacts of using open textbooks in middle and high school science classes. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, 13(3), 262-276.

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