Types of Course Materials

In the face-to-face classroom it is common to use publisher-created textbooks and course content. This type of content still exists in distance education in the form of ePacks (also known as Course Cartridges).

There are, however, many different options for adopting, adapting and creating multimedia course content for the online environment that provide affordable alternatives to traditional textbooks. In addition to the various instructional technology tools that can be used to create original course content, there are also many resources available through the PCC library as well as openly licensed eTextbooks, eBooks and CourseWare, known as Open Educational Resources (OER).

PCC-Supported Library Resources

PCC subscribes to numerous databases and online electronic full-text resources through the Shatford Library. The use of these resources are subject to various copyright and fair use laws. This means that instructors and students can access these materials, but each database will have differing terms of use for how the materials can be utilized in the ‘classroom’ (For example, some will allow instructors to place one copy in the LMS, while others will require a link directly to the database.) Before incorporating these materials into a class, it is important to double-check the terms of use and copyright information.


e-Packs (sometimes also referred to as Course Cartridges or Publisher Packs) are prebuilt courses created by publishers for use in distance education courses. e-Packs are different from companion websites for textbooks or eBooks (or eTextbooks). Companion websites provide supplemental materials to a textbook; eBooks are texts that have been converted to digital format. e-Packs are entire publisher-developed courses that can often be loaded directly into the LMS.

e-Pack Considerations

At first it might seem that using e-Packs is beneficial, since having content that is already created can reduce the amount of time it takes to develop course content and activities. e-Pack content directly matches that in the textbook and is customizable (meaning that instructors can choose the order and content they wish to make available to students). There is a lot of engaging and well-developed content available .

However, when considering an e-Pack for a course, it is important to understand there are some issues with e-Packs that may outweigh the benefits. Before adopting an e-Pack for a course, it is necessary to make certain that the e-Pack addresses the following criteria for best practices in online education and compliance.


Title 5 regulations (Section 59402) specify that students in distance education courses must be able to use electronic materials in the same way as they would face-to-face textbook materials. This means that students should be able to download, save or print materials not only during the course but after it as well. Any e-Pack that does not allow students to save materials is in violation of Title 5 regulations.


In addition to tuition and what students have to pay for textbooks, publisher e-Packs charge additional fees for course access codes. 

  • e-Pack codes cost anywhere from $15-$100 per course.
  • How and where to purchase e-Pack codes is not always clear (online, bookstore, bundled with the textbook). When publishers require students to buy codes online it may be a violation of student privacy rights, because it requires students to log in and use a credit card on a third party website.
  • Students who buy used texts may still have to pay full price for an e-Pack code.
  • Often the cost of the code is not refundable, creating an additional financial burden for students who drop the class.


Because e-Packs are created by a range of publishers, there is no guarantee that the materials will be accessible to students with disabilities. Generally eBooks that come with a course are compliant, but the added content (flashcards, etc.) may not be. For some students, assistive technology and support may be available, but it may require students to log on to third party websites, which can violate student privacy laws.

Each individual e-Pack must be evaluated for accessibility prior to adoption.


e-Packs are publisher-created and copyrighted material. Instructors can tailor the content to meet their needs. Any page that has publisher information on it must have the appropriate copyright information. Instructors can insert notes and comments onto copyrighted pages. 


For most e-Pack publishers, content generated by instructors remains the intellectual property of the instructor. However, it is best to check with the individual publisher to ensure that this is their policy.

All e-Packs must follow federal guidelines for student privacy, otherwise known as FERPA compliance. Publisher e-Packs are not always FERPA compliant. 

  • e-Packs are sometimes hosted on third-party websites, meaning that students have to leave the LMS order to access information or contribute to the course.
  • If there is a chance that student educational record data – grade, comments, roster information – is stored on a website outside the LMS, this could violate FERPA guidelines.
  • Students cannot be required to use a site that requires them to reveal any information other than directory data. In addition, if students are required to use a third-party publisher site, they will need to be issued aliases if that website is not FERPA compliant.


There are numerous concerns with e-Packs and best practices in online instruction. 

  • e-Packs are created by the publisher, and as such, may not meet the quality standards for the Course of Record.
  • Even though e-Packs are customizable, there is not as much flexibility about how the content is presented than there is in instructor-developed courses.
  • Differences between the e-Pack material (tone, type of content, organization) and what the instructor creates may be confusing for students.
  • Presentation of material and assessments in e-Packs often do not encourage collaborative, student-centered or critical thinking activities.
  • It is not always clear to students how to access and use content, particularly if they have to register at third party websites. Students may be so overwhelmed by dealing with different content delivery systems that the course quality suffers.


There are a number of technical issues with e-Packs. 

  • There is limited on-campus tech support for e-Packs. Most technical issues need to either be dealt with by the instructor or go through the publisher. This shifts the focus of instructor from content delivery to tech support.
  • Instructors need to make certain they have the right version of the content. With each new textbook edition, faculty need to double-check that they have an updated version of the e-Pack.
  • It can take up to 2 weeks to acquire and load e-Pack content onto the LMS.
    Moving content to new courses can sometimes present problems depending on what course section the e-Pack content is linked to.

In cases where e-Packs are being considered for course content, faculty should work with the Distance Education Department prior to adoption to ensure that the e-Pack meets all the necessary requirements.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

According to Atkins, Brown & Hammond, Open Educational Resources (OER) are:

“… teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

Differences between OER & free resources

The line between OER and free internet/electronic resources is not often clear-cut. But in general, OER materials have “…an open license that promotes sharing and remixing” (Baker). Free materials, on the other hand, may not require a fee but may have additional restrictions (such as copyright or specific attribution requirements) that limit their use even though they may still have educational applications under the Fair Use/TEACH Act.

Types of OER materials

OER encompass a vast variety of learning resources including:

  • Textbooks/eBooks
  • Audio files/Podcasts
  • Webcasts
  • Videos/Multimedia
  • Lesson Plans/Modules
  • Academic Journals
  • Courseware
  • Assessments
  • Learning Objects

Reasons to use OER

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in the video Why Open Education Matters gives several reasons why institutions and instructors should adapt OER. Among them, OER are:

  • Affordable
  • Adaptable
  • Innovative

OER provide access to educational resources for students who may not otherwise be able to afford them. And, because OER are open-source, instructors can often tailor materials to best meet their learners’ needs, using the most up-to-date technology and multimedia content.

For an overview of how OER can impact learning, check out this video by Nadia Paola Mireles Torres and the design firm, Funktionell.

Advantages/Disadvantages of OER

As with any materials used or adopted for course content, there are several advantages and disadvantages to keep in mind when considering OER.


Because OER are created outside the constraints of traditional publishers, they are usually customizable (depending on the type of license they are released under). This means that OER can often be adapted to best serve the specific needs of a course or institution. Author(s)/developers also have greater tractability in terms of incorporating collegial feedback into their revisions.
OER are available through various web-sites and repositories and are usually offered in a variety of formats like PDF, .doc, HTML. In addition, because OER are often in digital format, students can usually access them from a range of mobile devices.
Most OER formats are available for free or low-cost to students (materials online are free, but some OER may charge a nominal fee to download or print materials).
Traditional textbooks are often limited by release deadlines and pre-set templates. OER can incorporate innovations in pedagogy and technology (such as project-based learning or multimedia) that are often beyond the scope of conventional publishing houses.
Leading Edge
Instead of relying on a new edition of a textbook to come out (which may often already be outdated by the time of publication), OER can usually be updated to include the latest, most current source material or can integrate cutting edge technological innovations.


Since there is a range of technology that different OER employ, these resources may be difficult for students to use who have limited access to the internet or limited resources to purchase/download specific software.
OER materials would need to be vetted to ensure that they are 508 compliant.
Because a single peer-reviewed repository for materials does not exist, OER may vary in quality. There are, however, many OER websites and resources that do have strict guidelines for submission and review. In addition, some developers of OER may not revise their materials often. When considering adopting OER, it is necessary to make certain that the materials selected meet College standards for course quality.
Due to the range of criteria for submission on websites and repositories, OER materials need to be assessed to determine cultural, social and linguistic suitability for the College’s student population.
Instead of relying on a new edition of a textbook to come out (which may often already be outdated by the time of publication), OER can usually be updated to include the latest, most current source material or can integrate cutting edge technological innovations.

Impact on course quality

In California the use of OER does not negatively impact articulation or transfer of credits to four-years schools. In fact incorporating OER has been supported by the CCC Board of Governors and the Academic Senate.

According to Mahon, O’Donnell & Shelbani (29):

Open Educational Resources constitute a new frontier for higher education faculty… Some materials available via the Internet are superior to any textbook faculty might require students purchase at the bookstore… Faculty need to consider the mix of materials they use to educate their students with care, but the fact that course materials originate on the Internet is not an obstacle to a course’s potential to articulate and transfer.

Students can pay an estimated $1000 per year in textbook and course fees per year (Illowsky). The use of OER is encouraged as an alternative to the high cost of publisher materials. Mahon, O’Donnell & Shelbani describe how course materials can be compiled from a variety of academic resources (29):

For articulation purposes, the term ‘textbook’ refers to the primary reading materials students must master in order to complete a course…. It does not matter whether such a text is obtained from the college bookstore or via the internet… the use of any combination of these kinds of materials [novels, monographs, primary source anthologies, scholarly journal articles] should provide no threat to articulation.

While the challenge is finding materials that meet post-secondary standards of quality, there are many online resources and repositories available – the majority of which include peer reviews/stringent submission guidelines. For a list of some of these resources, check out the Course Content Resources page.

In addition, there are resources available for instructors to become more familiar with and develop their own OER. For more information, look at this Introduction to Open Education Resources Tutorial for an overview of OER and the OER Handbook for Educators.

Letting go of a traditional textbook can be a bit disconcerting, but, as institutions are shifting increasingly toward providing high quality affordable content that takes full advantage of state-of-the art advances in technology, this is becoming more commonplace.

Instructional Technology

The CANVAS LMS has many tools – like DISCUSSIONS, COLLABORATIONS, CHAT — that can be used to design and deliver online/hybrid courses. There are also additional tools available for developing content, creating community and enriching students’ learning experiences.

Instructional technology is always developing, and (particularly with the Millennial Generation), it is important when teaching online to recognize the positive effect incorporating a range of tools can have on student learning outcomes, motivation and retention (Hai-Jew).

New generations of online learners have learned to expect regular rollouts of newer, better, and faster levels of technological expertise. What is innovative and new in a curriculum today becomes simply the baseline expectation of new generations of learners. Everyday exposure to sophisticated production values in multimedia applications creates expectations among students that online courses will have similar production values; anything less can draw negative responses about the course as a whole.

These relatively new technologies enable students to represent ideas in different formats, which enhances their deep learning along both visual/spatial and auditory/verbal information channels. Material that originated in digital form can be readily deployed in online immersive sites or on different platforms.

For more information about instructional technology resources for online learning, please check out the Instructional Technology resources page.