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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Zero-cost (to students) textbook alternatives

A guide to teaching and learning materials freely available on the web and via the John Jay College Library


clipart of a zeroWhat are zero-cost educational resources?

Zero-cost educational resources include library materials such as articles, books, ebooks, DVDs and streaming videos, along with open educational resources (OERs). OERs are free or low cost teaching and learning materials that are licensed, often under a Creative Commons licensing term, to allows users to retain a copy of the content and reuse, revise, remix and redistribute it. OERs can include textbooks, videos, tests, entire courses, course modules and syllabi. These materials can be made available digitally or in print/hard copy.

For more definitions of OERs visit UNESCO's page on OERs, OER Commons, and Creative Commons' compilation of definitions.

Additional OER guides from other CUNY libraries and institutions which have informed this guide:

Why use zero-cost educational resources?

consumer price indexes for tuition and school-relation items, January 2006 to July 2016 Figure 1: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, College tuition and fees increase 63 percent since January 2006 on the Internet at (visited July 25, 2017).

Textbook prices have been increasing at a rate above inflation, impacting students's academic decisions and choices. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, during the ten-year period from January 2006 to January 2016 consumer prices for textbooks have increased by 88% (see figure 1, below). A 2014 U.S. PIRG study, Fixing the Broken Textbook Market, found that among the students surveyed:

  • 65% of students said they did not buy the course textbook because it was too expensive;
  • 94% of students who did not purchase the course text were concerned that it would negatively impact their grade in the course;
  • Almost 50% of students said the cost of textbooks impacted how many and/or which courses they enrolled in each semester;
  • 82% of students said they would do better in a course if the textbook were available freely online and buying a hard copy were optional.

CUNY's involvement in open educational resources (OERs)

In 2017, CUNY was granted $4 million from New York State to create new open educational resources initiatives. These initiatives include:

  • convert high-enrollment courses to use OERs;
  • create "zero-degree" programs where an entire degree in some majors are free of textbook costs;
  • support faculty to adopt and create OERs.

A number of CUNY colleges have been involved in OER initiatives including the Borough of Manhattan Community College and City Tech. As well, there are over 200 courses that are listed in CUNYfirst as "z" courses, courses without textbook costs.

Find out more about what's going on with OER at CUNY.