Before the pandemic, we knew college students were stressed out, and a good bit of their stress was financial. In fact, a recent national study found that 70 percent of college students were anxious about their finances. As faculty and administration mull the far-reaching effects of a pandemic that has exacerbated financial and other pressures on students and been felt disproportionally by students in lower socio-economic brackets, students of color, and first-generation college students, using Open Educational Resources may be a way to ease some of the financial pressure our most vulnerable students are experiencing.
A College Board survey found that the average full-time, on-campus undergraduate at a four-year institution spent approximately $1,240 on books and related materials during the 2020-2021 academic year. Although it may only be a fraction of the costs a student might spend to attend college for a year, textbooks seem to be an area of student finances where students are willing to take creative steps to economize. I have heard from my own students that they might pick and choose which courses to buy textbooks for, that they shop around for courses with lower-cost materials, or that they drop a class after they attend the first day of class when learn of the high cost of the textbook or other books on the reading list. Many students in my courses over the years spend the first week or two without the textbook because they were waiting for a delivery from a lower-cost textbook provider. U.S. PIRG data bears this out, finding that 65 percent of college students have held off buying a textbook because it was too expensive, even though they understood that there was a likelihood that not having the textbook would affect their ability to do well in the class.
Years ago, I tried to solve this problem in my introductory survey class by allowing students to buy any of the last three or four editions of the assigned textbook. This way, they could buy a used textbook from an online provider. The older the edition, the cheaper the price. I had students routinely find our textbook, which retails for $399 for the paper edition as of this writing, for as little as $5 plus shipping if they moved quickly and were willing to take an older, shelf-worn book.
My course is an introduction to business law that contains a little bit of everything a businessperson might need to spot issues with the law before they call a lawyer – contracts, torts, criminal law, property. There is a lot to learn about these areas of the law but the concepts taught in this class have all been settled law for many years. Even though there might be a new edition of the textbook every year or so, with new chapter questions, examples, or highlighted cases, the fundamental concepts do not often change. In fact, in my 20 years of teaching this course, there has only been one change in the law that I have had to point out to students who had an earlier edition of the textbook. A certain property ownership concept that used to be discussed as available only to husbands and wives is now, since marriage equality has become the law of the land, discussed as available to both spouses in a marriage, and not limited to a marriage between a man and a woman.
So, my attempt at a solution to the rising cost of textbooks was fairly effective but not without its drawbacks. To allow students time to get a mail-ordered textbook in time for the beginning of the semester, I had to email the registered students a few weeks before the semester began. They had to check email, open and read my email (and take action on it), all before they stepped foot into my classroom. Those students who did take action and buy the book from a third-party reseller had to rely on the promised timing of delivery from the textbook provider. And, of course, any students who enrolled on the first day of class or who wanted to give themselves a chance to try out my class before they invested in learning resources had more limited options. They would have to buy the textbook in the first week of the semester and, while waiting for it to arrive, had to forgo the first week or two of assignments, risk being docked 10 percent for late work, and start off the semester playing catch up when their book finally arrived.
The rest of the burden of having students use different editions fell to me as the instructor. Although the law was the same in each of the editions, they all varied in the examples presented, the cases on which they focused, and the chapter and other questions that were offered to assess student understanding. To use different editions of the book, I had to be familiar with these differences. And I had to be comfortable with pausing class discussion when a student raised an example from his, her, or their textbook that was unfamiliar to me. This didn’t happen often but when it did, I would have to ask the student to read the passage and then I would interpret it a bit on the fly to answer the question.
Could there be a better way? A couple of years ago, with a small grant administered by our AVP of Undergraduate Education and the invaluable assistance of our library staff, I set out to explore Open Educational Resources as a more sustainable solution to the problems that the high cost of textbooks posed for my students.
Open Educational Resources, or OER, are defined by creative commons as teaching, learning and research materials that are in the public domain or licensed to provide free and perpetual permission to be used broadly in such a way and with no or few limitations, as if they have no ownership by another.
Why Consider Open Educational Resources?
I’m using OER materials for a survey course that would traditionally have one large general textbook out of which a portion of the chapters would be assigned. In my discipline, one of the leading textbooks costs $399. It has over 50 chapters and, for the entry-level survey course an instructor would typically assign only 12 to 16 chapters—much less than half of the material. Even under the best of circumstances, this is not an efficient use of resources.
While the book can be used for the upper-level course, not all students go on to take that course. For those that do, if they don’t take it in the very next semester (and sometimes even if they do), there is another edition of the textbook that is issued by the publisher and a significant likelihood that the professor in the upper-level class will assign the new edition.
Other faculty or department curriculum committees will have other learning resources (individual literature texts, journal articles, and the like) and the decision to use OER will vary by faculty, department, school, or discipline, often in relation to traditional materials that are available. For me the opportunity to save students the expense of buying a textbook that is over twice as long as they need and often can’t make further use of weighted heavily in favor of the decision to explore OER for the course.
Meeting OER’s Challenges: Are OER Materials Good Enough? Do I Have the Time to Curate Them?
Once you decide to consider substituting a traditional text with OER materials, there are two major challenges to adopting OER and leaving the traditional textbook behind – quality and time. Regarding quality, I think many faculty may take as a given the quality of a textbook that was assembled by someone who was paid to take the time and effort to assemble and curate the right material for the course in question. A tried-and-true textbook has the backing of the publishing institution behind the writer an editor. Each of these presumably has resources to understand the market and to provide something that is “tried and true” precisely because it is iterative and been revised in response to faculty and student feedback.
But there are many resources available to instructors who take some time to look for them. There are older resources, books and monographs, that had copyright protection that since expired or has run its course and are in the public domain. There exist online and print resources that look and feel just like traditional textbooks but that the author or authors have chosen to release to the public for use without requiring compensation, including with various creative commons licenses. This will vary by discipline, of course. For my discipline, legal studies, instructors can find reported cases directly from the courts.
It might feel like instructors are building their own textbooks from the raw materials that the textbook authors would use. That may seem positive and empowering to you in terms of having control over the materials and taking advantage of the opportunity to customize the experience for your students. It may also seem like it would take a lot of time to do it and especially to do it justice.
The time it will take to deploy OER materials is a significant consideration. In fact, I think of it in two ways. It is a significant investment of time for instructors to find, curate, and assemble materials in contrast to simply pulling a book off their shelf, a book that was sent to them by textbook representatives, often for free.
The other aspect of time that is important is the effort for a student to use these curated OER materials. To be as user-friendly to a student as simply cracking the spine of a textbook and finding the corresponding assigned chapter in the syllabus takes effort on the part of the instructor to assemble and curate the materials in a meaningful way. If the instructor doesn’t take the time and make the effort to do so, the students will bear the burden of time as they sort through an assortment of resources that may substitute for the concepts in the textbook but may lack the ease or clarity of the organization of the textbook.
So, How Can We Do This – and Do it Right?
The first thing I did to find and curate the right OER materials was to make a list of all of the topics and subtopics I covered in my class. I put this in a spreadsheet, one topic or subtopic in each row. And then I set out to see what resources are available.
My campus librarians were a good source of help for this. They directed me to sites that have textbooks or other resources that are in the public domain (copyright free) or have creative common licenses that permit their use in this way.
I found three textbooks that were made available on these sites and then set out to review them in terms of the coverage of the material. I filled in a column of my spreadsheet with each of the textbooks and reviewed how the topics were addressed. Where the topics appeared in the OER materials, I considered the treatment of it, including the language, nuance, and level of detail that were offered.
I didn’t find coverage of every topic and some topics were not covered in a way that I felt was an acceptable substitute to the textbook I had used. In the end, I narrowed it down to two textbooks that covered a lot of the material I wanted to address. And I set out to scour the for other material, including other media, to fill the gaps.
I found a few sets of publicly available YouTube videos that tracked the material I teach. Between the two copyright-free textbooks and two sets of videos I found, I was able to cover almost every topic and subtopic in a way that I was comfortable was a satisfactory substitute for the course material I had been teaching from a traditional textbook. I added a few one-off resources, either written or video, as applicable, and found I had assembled OER materials to address everything I needed to cover. The bonus for students was that many topics and subtopics were covered with both written and video materials to give an alternative to students who learn differently or simply to offer another perspective they might enjoy or find useful.
It wasn’t an easy or quick process. It took a few months, and I had help. I acknowledge that not every instructor will have the privilege I did of a great library staff and a small grant to offset some of the time and effort that I expended. But, considering that instructors do spend significant time and effort to create a course they can teach in a way that is meaningful to students, the time and effort I spent curating these materials felt productive and useful to this end – and might be particularly important to our most vulnerable students at a time when they could really use the help.