by Emily Bartelheim
Recent studies have found that the hefty price tag on textbooks impacts students’ learning experiences. According to a January 2014 SPIRG report, 65 percent of students choose to go without textbooks for a class because they are too expensive, even though 94 percent of them believe this will negatively impact their grade for that class. This study also found that nearly half of all students surveyed said the price of textbooks affected how many and which classes they took each semester.
For these very reasons and more, instructors at Ohio University are increasing their efforts to lower student costs. OHIO students report spending over $1,000 per year on books. Below are some techniques OHIO instructors are using to not only help alleviate financial strain on their students, but also to create more engaging, high-impact courses.
When Adrienne Erby, counselor education program coordinator and lecturer and interim director of the George E. Hill Center, tells her students there aren’t any required textbooks for their courses, they are often in disbelief. “Some of them say ‘Are you sure?’” Erby said. “I tell them ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ It’s kind of exciting.”
Instead of requiring her students to buy one or two textbooks for her graduate-level multicultural counseling course, Erby creates a composite textbook made of completely free resources. These resources include chapters from textbooks, articles, and more.
“In terms of multicultural counseling, we’re talking about a very broad definition of ‘multicultural,’” she said. “We address race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, status, and so many other things. With that, there’s no one person who’s an expert on all those things, let alone in one single textbook.”
Erby was first inspired to create a composite textbook because during her own time as a student, she and her classmates were required to purchase about ten textbooks for just one course. She and her classmates shared materials as best they could. While she loved the experience of being able to have different authors, she said “the process could have been a lot easier for the students.”
Greg Kessler, associate professor in instructional technology in the College of Education and associate professor of linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, also curates content to use in his courses in lieu of a pricey textbook, and has been doing so for quite some time. “The last time I required a textbook for any of my courses was in 2004,” Kessler noted.
Kessler first started moving away from using textbooks in his courses because it’s a way of guaranteeing that every student has the materials. He said it’s not unusual for a student to go two or three weeks before actually obtaining a textbook for a course, in which case he spends a majority of the semester helping his students play catch-up.
Research shows that 93% of students who use open educational resources do as well as or better than those using traditional materials (Hilton III, 2017). Kessler said his students are noticeably more involved and engaged when a variety of materials is used. “With different learning styles, some people are much more appropriately addressed by using audio and video instead of just text all the time,” he said.
Kessler also likes using a variety of sources because it’s a way to ensure he can provide the most current and appropriate content. “For me, it’s just much more effective and much more enjoyable to teach when you specifically select exactly the material that you want,” he said.
Samuel Dodd, visiting assistant professor in the School of Art and Design, also places special importance on finding alternative sources for his students to use for his online course, Art History II, for the same reasons as Kessler. “Everything in my online course is provided and curated by me through Blackboard,” he explained. “It saves students money, and it allows me to really cherry-pick what information I want to supplement my lectures.”
Dodd considers a curated learning package to be the most important piece of an online course. He pulls articles and information from free sources on the internet—in his case, museums’ and institutions’ websites—that provide similar information to what could be found in a textbook.
Particularly ambitious OHIO faculty are creating their own materials. Anirudh Ruhil, associate professor of leadership & public affairs, is currently creating a textbook for an intro to statistics course for on-campus, blended, and online Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) students.
Ruhil said there are only two real textbook options in his subject area and he doesn’t think either are cost effective, so he decided to write his own to better fit his needs. He estimates using his own free textbook will save each of his students between $100–$300.
Ruhil is writing his entire book from his own notes using free, open-source programming and statistics packages (e.g., R, R Studio, LaTeX, GitHub). He has been able to dedicate time to this project over the past year through the University’s Faculty Fellowship Leave Program.
Ruhil hopes to pilot a first draft of the book during fall semester (2017) in his on-campus and hybrid MPA classes. The textbook will be hosted online as an open-source text. It will be available as a PDF, website, or e-pub; it will have indexes, hyperlinks, and an attached bibliography. “Anybody who wants to use it, they’re welcome to use it. If they don’t want to, that’s fine too, but I’m not going to sell it or advertise it,” he said.
Ashwini Ganeshan, assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages, also is creating a textbook. She wants to use a textbook in her subject area (Spanish linguistics) that incorporates more current content so students can make connections to the modern world. However, unlike Ruhil, she is utilizing her students to create a collaborative product.
Ganeshan assigns specific, graded assignments to her graduate and undergraduate students, which she then uses for the textbook (with their permission). “I would like this textbook to be by the students, of the students, for the students,” she said. “I’m serving as the person who’s organizing the whole thing and making sure it’s not redundant.” The textbook will be a long-term project, as she uses a small number of assignments per semester to add to the textbook.
Ganeshan thought of this idea because her students were struggling with not only the concepts of her linguistics course, but also understanding the language itself. “I realized I always ask them to turn in things to check their understandings and they’re able to explain things in a much simpler way, so why not use that?” she said. She also wanted to see more current content, which textbooks tend not to have.
An undergraduate research assistant will be helping Ganeshan compile her textbook over the next year, through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program by the Honors Tutorial College. “The student’s level of Spanish will help me understand if this text is accessible as she will be able to identify difficult words, etc.,” Ganeshan said. “It’s a great program—the student learns so much and you get help, too.”
Like Ruhil’s text, Ganeshan’s end product will be hosted online for free. Using this text at no cost will save each student anywhere between $100–$210. “I believe knowledge should be free,” she said. “I think this is a way to make knowledge free because it would be hosted online and hopefully no one will ever have to pay for this.”
Kessler and Ganeshan mingle at the Collaboration Hub open house after the 2017 Spotlight on Learning Conference.
Throughout her process, Ganeshan has taken advantage of the resources available from the University Libraries, including help with open materials and copyright information. In collaboration with University Libraries, the Office of the University Registrar, and the Office of Information Technology, the Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) is spearheading a textbook initiative to examine the most effective ways to manage and reduce the hefty price tag on course materials.
As a collaborative effort, the University Libraries started the Alt-Textbook Initiative with OII in 2015 as a way to encourage instructors to move away from pricey textbooks. Incentives were offered to redesign courses, reconstruct syllabi, modify assignments, and more.
Ganeshan, Erby, and Dodd all participated in the Alt-Textbook Initiative; Kessler is a task force member of OII’s textbook initiative; and Ruhil received support by getting ideas and validation from the initiative. They all have found success in taking advantage of open-access and licensed online resources available through the Libraries. “I think the ability to draw on multiple open-source resources can be really exciting in terms of diversifying your teaching platform,” Dodd said. He likes that it adds more voices and variety to a course, aside from just the instructor’s.
In its first two years, the Alt-Textbook Initiative in the Libraries led to at least some content change in 47 different courses at the University. Sixteen of those courses had enrollments of over 99 students per academic year. This led to 3,733 students seeing nearly $430,000 in textbook savings.
For those interested in reducing their course material costs, Ganeshan recommends taking little steps by making small tweaks each semester. “My advice is to speak to your students, see what would be useful for them, and do it.” She also added faculty shouldn’t do it alone; they should collaborate and share materials with other colleagues.
Kessler added that using open-education resources is easy to do: “Most faculty already consume content in their subject area for their own needs, but they don’t think about using it for their students,” he said. “It’s just a different way of thinking.”
Kelly Broughton, assistant dean for research and education services in University Libraries, encourages faculty to reach out to their subject librarian for help identifying and incorporating alternative content into their course.
“Once you have determined your goals, objectives, and learning outcomes, consultation with your subject librarian can speed up the process of content discovery,” Broughton said. “Be it library-licensed or open; text, data, or multimedia, your librarian can help find the right content, help interpret rights issues, and point you in the right direction for next steps.”
Choosing materials to assign to students should be part of an overall thoughtful and purposeful course design strategy. The Office of Instructional Innovation has a team of instructional technologists who are available to assist OHIO faculty with courses. Technologists can help faculty become more aware of open education resources (OER), be they an open-source textbook or other material.
OER is not limited to free textbooks—a multitude of resources are available for faculty to use. Instructional technologists can help locate these resources for faculty or merely point them in the right direction. Technologists also can encourage faculty to develop their own OERs. The OER community supports faculty in creating resources that contribute back to others. Email email@example.com or reach out directly to instructional design staff for assistance.
The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of promising new approaches to instruction. OII provides a variety of services to academic units and faculty, online programs and students, as well as additional initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.
Open Access & Open Educational Resources from Ohio University Libraries