Textbooks That Don't Break the Bank

Rebecca A. Eckland
students using open education resources

According to research, Open Educational Resources change student focus from the cost of course materials to the course itself.

Everyone knows that pursuing a degree in higher education can be expensive. Tuition and fees aside, the cost of books—particularly for required general education classes like Math, the Sciences or Humanities—can, for many students determine the number of classes they can take, or often lead to difficult questions, such as: do I buy the books I need for this class, or groceries for the month?

This is also true at TMCC, where 20% of our students face considerable economic hardship. In the spring of 2016, Neil Siegel, Resource Librarian and faculty across several academic departments received a Foundation Grant to assist with the development of Open Education Resources to offset the cost of traditional textbooks that were not meeting the desired learning outcomes for the course, while costing students a considerable financial investment.

In the fall of 2017, Siegel surveyed 845 TMCC students at the Dandini campus and other learning sites. The survey had surprising results:

  • 43% of students (360) did not purchase the required textbook for their class
  • 37% (309) took fewer classes than they had wanted due to the cost
  • 24% (200) did not purchase the required textbook, and thus earned a poor grade
  • 10% (85) did not purchase the textbook and dropped the class
  • 7% (60) failed a class
  • 25% (210) claimed no impact—but reading their comments it was emphasized that family, VA work earnings paid for the textbooks, but caused severe personal spending limitations
  • 88% (677) responded that they would prioritize taking a class that provided a free, online accessible textbook

These survey findings support a study from Brigham Young University that was released in 2016. The study, which was the largest and most rigorous of its kind, utilized over 16,000 students across 10 institutions. The study found that students who were assigned open textbooks took approximately 2 credits more both in the semester of in which the study was conducted and the following semester. The study also found that students in more than half of the courses that used open textbooks performed better according to at least one academic measure, and were more likely to complete the course than students enrolled in a course with a traditional textbook.

This study is accompanied by several others, suggesting that when it comes to materials that assist in classroom instruction, quality isn’t always aligned with cost.

What is an “Open Educational Resource”?

Open Educational Resources (OER) are any resources that are available at little or no cost that can be used for teaching, learning or research. This can include textbooks, course readings and “other learning content” that is used for educational purposes—like podcasts, simulations, games, syllabi, quizzes or assessments. Typically, OER material originates from colleges and universities, archival organizations, government agencies, commercial organizations (such as publishers), or faculty or other individuals who develop educational resources they are willing to share. What all OER has in common is Creative Commons (or similar) license that supports an open or nearly open use of its content.

“The Open Education Resource Movement was established to assist students in taking more courses per semester, reduce their academic expenses and assist in taking fifteen credits per semester to augment graduation rates,” said Siegel. “Community college students attempt to balance academics with work… and this is assisting them to complete their education.”

Six academic departments across TMCC—Biology, Math, English, Art History, Sociology/Anthropology and Business—have been working to adopt OER in their classes. This past semester, these Open Educational Resources saved students $94,000. “For every $1 we invested in the grant, we returned $37 to the students,” said Siegel.

OER in TMCC Classrooms

Dr. Megan Lahti, who has taught in the TMCC Biology department for four semesters, has transitioned an OER textbook offered through OpenStax College for Biology 190. The textbook, which is available for students online at no cost or students can purchase a bound paperback copy for $40 that covers both the first and second semester. The material—whose faults include simplistic or minimalistic artwork, and supplementary resources that are not as fully developed as other publisher platforms—can be integrated into Canvas. Lahti has substituted appropriate graphics from other open sources.

“Since having adopted Open Educational Material, I have been able to develop the course more fitting to my teaching style,” Lahti said, “and I’m very happy where the course is at now.”

Math Instructor Dan Hooper has adapted his Math 126 classes to use an OpenStax textbook, which is free for students. “Students are appreciative that I use OER,” said Hooper. “I have heard no complaints. When I had been using expensive materials, I always had 1-2 students tell me that they could not afford the materials. It’s nice to know that I am helping students out.”

Corina Weidinger teaches courses in Art History, and has been working with integrating from textbooks to OER materials three years ago, beginning with the class Women in Art. “There isn’t really a textbook written on that subject. The one I found was written at a graduate level-- and my students really struggled.” Since, Weidinger has curated 52 online readings, a timeline accessible through the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, Khan Academy, other museum websites, The Art Story, articles in newspapers and magazines and some secondary readings that can be found on JSTOR (available through the Library’s research databases). TMCC offers 6-7 sections of Women in Art each year, of which Weidinger teaches three; this means 180 students are using OER materials curated by Weidinger.

In Fall 2018, Weidinger also implemented OER materials into her ART 160—Art Appreciation—classes. “For Art Appreciation, the textbook was good but too expensive, so I now use 41 online articles and 44 videos instead. There are about 8 sections per year of this class x 25 students = 200 students per year are affected by this change. Again, I teach 3 of those sections, but part-timers teaching them also now use the same readings. I share the changes with all of them,” she said.

Yet, nothing in life is free. Instructors who utilize OER admit that it requires, especially at first, a substantial time commitment. Yet, for students, this appears to be well spent.