A buy-in for open books

Tall bookshelf near bright window

WSU Vancouver is confronting the high cost of classroom materials with open educational resources.

Skye Troy's debit card was suspended after a trip to the Bookie, WSU Vancouver's bookstore. Unusual charges, the bank explained.

No, Troy said, nothing unusual: just textbooks. Troy, a senior public affairs major and president of the Associated Students of WSU Vancouver, had spent $475 on textbooks for the semester.

Troy’s friends commented on a Facebook post about the experience, some with shock and others with tips for reducing costs, from buying old versions to making photocopies, or even going without. “Students started telling me that they stopped buying books because they couldn’t afford them and had to take a ‘B’ because they didn’t have access to the materials they needed to be successful,” she said.

According to the College Board, undergraduate books and supplies cost an average of $1,230 to $1,390 annually. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that textbook prices had increased more than 1,000 percent since 1977, and college students across the nation cited costs as a top concern.

When Vancouver students began to push back, campus leaders listened and looked for solutions. In 2016, while acting as the university president, now-Provost Dan Bernardo created a Course Materials Cost Reduction Task Force. Open Educational Resources quickly emerged as an alternative to textbooks and other traditional media.

OERs can be as broad as YouTube videos or as narrow as PDF “books” specifically created for a class by the teaching faculty. The key, though, is access and expense: While they’re not necessarily free, they are cheaper than traditional textbooks. An open resource might cost $30 instead of $300. New technology also helps students gain access, with PDFs and tablets replacing paper and publishers.

Leading the way

In fall 2013, the Math 106 class at WSU Vancouver participated in a pilot program using OER in partnership with the Gates Foundation and Lumen Learning. The result was overwhelmingly positive—and the teaching faculty member left WSU to work for Lumen and continue developing materials. The program expanded to a couple of other math classes and the task force estimates it has already saved students about $40,000.

That’s the goal, said Michael Caulfield, the director of blended and networked learning at WSU Vancouver. He is one of the leaders in the effort to make OER part of the new standard in educational materials. Caulfield, along with Karen Diller, library director; and Linda Frederiksen, head of access services, have been telling faculty about grant and funding opportunities to find or create appropriate OERs—books and ancillary resources, such as videos and quizzes—for their courses.

WSU Libraries, and Academic Outreach and Innovation are providing stipends of up to $5,000 to faculty interested in finding textbook alternatives. Faculty in Vancouver can receive support and stipends of up to one month’s salary to create, adapt or add OER materials to their courses. In 2016, WSU was one of 11 institutions nationwide selected to participate in the Open Educational Resource Institutional Partnership Program, which is operated by Rice University’s OpenStax. The program will provide free consultation and resources for schools wanting to increase the use of OERs and help schools dedicated to lowering the cost of course materials connect with each other. The estimated savings per year with the program is $424,000.

Balancing cost and efficiency

Caulfield and Diller have led the effort on campus to connect Vancouver faculty with the opportunities. Meanwhile, Frederiksen is on sabbatical working on OER development. Creating materials is not a small time commitment, Frederiksen said: To develop a replacement textbook may take up to a year. Ancillary materials can take even longer.

OER materials don’t have to be from new sources. Vancouver instructor Bill Griesar has used openly available materials, including YouTube videos and publicly available research, in his neuroscience courses for about 10 years. He cites student cost as a top reason why he ditched traditional books.

While OER works for some courses, it’s not the ideal solution for others. Willy Cushwa, a biology instructor, used OpenStax to create a textbook for about $50, instead of $150 for a traditional textbook. It was time-consuming, but resulted in a PDF that worked and saved his students money. But the same approach wouldn’t work for another class where the traditional textbook costs only $30 used—less expensive than anything Cushwa could have created and far less time-consuming for him.

“I was a student too, and you hate paying outrageous sums of money for books,” Cushwa said. “My goal is to find a resource to help students learn, and at the most effective and lowest price point.”

The goal for faculty, administration and student government is helping students finish their degrees on time and with as little cost as possible. Sacrificing textbooks to pay bills doesn’t help accomplish that. For Troy, the move toward OER is an obvious one, despite the challenges.

“Affordable textbooks will increase student success, help students be more engaged in the classroom, and when students have access to the materials they need, they will be more successful overall,” Troy said. “It’s going to be a game-changer.”

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This article is summarized from Northwest Crimson & Gray Magazine

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington. To read the full story, download or view the Spring 2017 issue online (PDF). You can also subscribe for free.