Savings add up for students under Libraries' grants for free online textbooks

Contact: Sara Volmering

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—More than 1,400 Western Michigan University students are expected to save a total of nearly $164,000 on the cost of textbooks and course enrollment in 2021 through a grant program for free online materials.

In its second round of Open Education Resources (OER) grants, University Libraries awarded $1,000 grants each to 10 faculty and instructors. View the 2020-21 Open Textbook Grant recipients.

Open textbooks are high-quality educational resources licensed to allow instructors to use and adapt the content; students access that content for free online. With support from the grant, faculty and instructors replace higher-cost, traditional textbooks with these open textbooks.

"Not only does adopting OER help students save money, it allows them access to scholarly content that is openly licensed and relevant to their learning experience," says Beth Martin, associate professor and OER librarian.

The grant-winning instructors made the switch to OER for several reasons that include student financial relief, accessibility and the benefits of a frequently updated, high-quality online resource, which is especially helpful during this period of increased virtual instruction.

"I've always been mindful about textbook costs and tried to choose materials that wouldn't be too expensive, and I also made sure that my students had alternatives," says Dr. Anna Popkova, assistant professor of communication, who is using OER materials for her Introduction to Public Relations class.

"As a social worker, I feel I have an ethical obligation to make education as accessible to as many types of students as possible. OER was a simple way to move in that direction," adds Jennifer Klauth, an instructor for a Social Work Roles and Services course and manager of recruitment and outreach for the School of Social Work.

The availability of high-quality OER and the ease of switching also appealed to Dr. Anthony DeFulio, who replaced the textbook for his Advanced Research Methods in Psychology course after a Faculty Senate presentation on OER.

"I was able to select my OER materials for (the course) before the presentation had ended. A later, careful review confirmed them as fully appropriate, and I implemented them the following semester with almost no changes to my lecture or assessment materials," says DeFulio.

Switching to an OER also helped solve a widespread issue affecting many instructors and students: delays in purchasing or availability of print textbooks. DeFulio also notes, "There have been times when students have had to wait for several weeks into the semester to buy books because of delays in receiving financial aid. That issue is eliminated by OER materials."

Before using the online materials, Klauth made copies of textbooks available in her office. Then switching to an OER became an unexpected blessing during the spring 2020 semester when the University transitioned to distance education amid the pandemic. "When we switched to fully (virtual) in the spring, it meant no interruption for services for students who typically used course reserves, library resources, shared books with peers or the copy I owned."

Popkova says the quality and frequently refreshed content also enhanced student learning and the course experience.

"Public relations is such a dynamic and quickly changing field that I end up updating content every semester," she says. "OER gives more flexibility in terms of mixing and matching content, pulling from various sources and integrating examples and case studies from other publicly available sources (like pay-wall-free PR trade publications). I think this flexibility allows for providing better and more up-to-date content, which strengthens the course—especially a course like Intro to PR."

Last year's grant recipients and their students completed surveys on their experience with OER. Initial results have been positive, especially for students, with more than 64% who reported having an open textbook led to much better class performance. Students described their OER as easy to use, convenient and a financial relief. This positively impacted their experience in the class, and several students reported feeling relieved and appreciative of the free open textbook.

"We can't be more excited to continue this impactful program, which has saved students nearly a million dollars in textbook costs in two years," says Paul Gallagher, associate dean of University Libraries. "We are grateful for the faculty who are doing the work to transition their courses and glad to help support their efforts to improve academic outcomes."

Faculty and instructors interested in learning more about OER are invited to attend an Open Education Resources Online Symposium from 1 to 4 p.m. on Thursday, March 4.

About OER

Colleges and universities have developed open textbooks and course content in response to concerns about the affordability of traditional textbooks. Textbook prices have risen 1,041% since 1977, higher than medical costs and the Consumer Price Index.

Many students who can't afford their textbooks have found a simple but concerning solution—they don't buy them. According to research sponsored by Florida Virtual University in 2018, 64% of students did not purchase a required textbook. In addition, 42% of students took fewer courses, and 22% dropped a course due to textbook costs. Open education resources, including open textbooks, provide an alternative.

Visit the Open Education Resources website to learn more about the open textbook grant and the open education initiative at WMU.

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