Open educational resources can be beneficial and cost-effective for students

Every semester, students can spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks and course materials alone, increasing their financial burden. In an effort to explore student perspectives and other options, the Vice President of USUAA, Geser Bat-Erdene, will be distributing a campus-wide survey and raising awareness about open educational resources.

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Unlike most textbooks by large publishing companies, open education allows the use of openly licensed materials that students and faculty can use at little to no cost. This can include various forms of textbooks, media, software and other content from multiple sources as long as they are permitted for free-use and re-purposing.

Bat-Erdene first began the project in the spring semester of 2017 as a USUAA senator, investigating the prices of textbooks and how they affected students’ costs. He discovered that there is a small number of publishing companies who make efforts to promote the use of their textbooks.

“What I’ve found out is that the textbook prices are in the hands of few main publishers, about four or five in the nation,” Bat-Erdene said. “They also know their work and they know how to advertise their services to faculty.”

Representatives from these companies visit universities to speak with professors and Veronica Howard, associate professor of psychology, said that they come around during a time that is particularly stressful for faculty. Professors are typically expected to choose course materials six months to a year in advance and some of these marketing representatives arrived September.

“Publishers know that faculty are incredibly busy and it’s hard to go out and find those resources on your own. So they send ambassadors to come and market the textbooks,” Howard said. “They show us things like myPsychLab and they show us how these are going to be effort-saving, cost-saving, wonderful options for our students.”

Faculty are usually allowed to decide on course materials, a concept referred to as “academic freedom” but there are still a number of influencing factors. According to Howard, sometimes committees within departments or the department chair will choose textbooks, especially for general courses that may have many sections with a large number of students.

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Yet Howard believes that OER can be just as beneficial and educational for students while saving them money. She has already implemented the use of OER in her general psychology courses and said that none of her students needed to pay for a textbook.

“[That course] usually has between 110 and 140 people. So far there’s been about 700 students who’ve been in that course and none of them have had to pay for a textbook. When you look at just the money involved… you’re talking about a cost savings of anywhere from the mid-$30,000s up to almost $100,000 because some intro psych textbooks are $200 to $250,” Howard said.

D’Arcy Hutchings, instructional design librarian at the Consortium Library, also said that OER can be advantageous for both students and faculty.

“In general, the OER textbooks are just as high quality as the traditional textbooks and, in many ways, they’re better because your instructor can customize them in ways that you can’t with textbooks from traditional publishers,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings partners with other faculty members, including Howard, to push for more implementation of OER in the classroom.

“We’ve done a lot of trainings on campus for faculty, trying to encourage them to use OER and show them how to go about it,” Hutchings said.

When students don’t have to pay high prices for textbooks, they are more likely to take more courses with the money they saved, Hutchings said. And if they avoid purchasing a traditional texbook because of the cost, it impacts their academic success.

“There’s research that has shown that students who are in classes with exclusively OER — they end up taking more classes the semester that they’re in a OER textbook course, as well as after,” Hutchings said. “So it helps them to be able to afford more credits.”

OER is still gaining traction in the market and Lorelei Sterling, distance education librarian at the Consortium Library, said that OER publishers are working to provide the same materials that large publishers do.

“OER publishers are working on providing more test banks and lab space, but they are not yet as robust as some of the materials that the big publishing companies can provide,” Sterling said.

Bat-Erdene also wants to see other faculty members take part. In April, USUAA passed a resolution to further research students’ views on textbook prices and finding ways to improve accessibility and affordability, and Bat-Erdene worked with Howard to put together a survey that will be distributed later this month.

After getting student feedback and evaluating results, Bat-Erdene hopes to spread the word about OER so that it can be incorporated in more courses throughout the University of Alaska system, including other campuses. He said that transitioning to OER will take time for students and faculty, but it’s important that the options are there.

“It’s definitely not an easy process. We just have to clarify what areas they can be implemented and maybe have a trial period or something like that,” Bat-Erdene said. “Our work is to be sure that students are aware of alternatives.”

Howard also thinks that asking faculty to change their methods might require a lot of work, but at the end of the day, they still want student success.

“I’d like to see students standing up and asking for more reasonably priced textbooks, for open textbooks,” Howard said. “I do think that, regardless of the department, regardless of the class, faculty want what is best for students.”

At the Consortium Library, Sterling is seeing an increase in students’ use of the free service that offers course material provided by faculty due to rising textbook prices.

“Textbook prices are rising faster than inflation and nearly as fast as tuition and fees,” Sterling said. “I hear from students all the time that they can’t afford their textbooks and without this critical learning tool, how can they succeed?”

Although Hutchings and her colleagues are advocating for OER and providing assistance for professors that are interested, the biggest voice to be heard is that of students.

“The louder that students are about how important this is for them, the more likely we are to be successful in our efforts,” Hutchings said. “If students are asking for it and bringing it to the places where they have a voice, to the Board of Regents… it’s more likely to happen.”

The survey, proposed by Bat-Erdene and designed by Howard, is likely to be distributed to UAA students in the upcoming weeks. More information on OER and other additional tools can be found in the Consortium Library.