Librarians leading for free textbooks

Nicholas Tucker, News Editor

A project is underway at the lead of two CWU librarians who are trying to get rid of textbook requirements for gen ed classes.

According to Instructional Design Librarian Geri Hopkins and Scholarly Communications Librarian Maura Valentino, the two became aware of a grant from the Washington Student Achievement Council which provides funding for Open Educational Resources (OER). Valentino had the idea that $1000 given to faculty members would provide them with an incentive to change their courses to include OERs.

“We knew a lot of faculty were going to be redesigning their courses anyway and this would be a great way to do the old ‘kill two birds with one stone’ type thing and save their students hundreds of dollars per term,” Hopkins said.

Valentino and Hopkins have identified a path through the gen ed program which requires no textbooks. The two are trying to inform as many students as they can about this option. 

“We want students to know, and one of the things we’re trying to implement is to have a designation in the online course scheduler that’ll say ‘there’s your textbook cost,’” Valentino said. 

The goal for this feature is to have it implemented in spring quarter. Another option the two are hoping will be eventually included is a “no textbooks” option when students are signing up for classes. 

OER programs are appearing all over the country, with Western Washington University also implementing one based on the same Washington Student Achievement Council grant. However, according to Valentino, community colleges have been leading the trend.

“With community college tuition, sometimes the textbooks can be almost as much for a quarter,” Valentino said.

This means that a grant will generally save more people money if it goes to a community college rather than a four-year university. This is the same reason that Valentino and Hopkins are focusing on gen ed courses: more people in each class means that one class transitioning to OERs will save more people more money.

“Let’s face it. When a student has to make a choice between buying food for the next two weeks or buying a textbook, which choice do you think they’re going to make?” Hopkins said. 

What replaces the expensive textbooks is important, and according to Valentino and Hopkins, this can vary quite a lot depending on the instructor and the class. Many use existing materials like older textbooks, YouTube videos, Ted Talks, government websites and more. A recent trend has been towards interactive educational resources. PhET, for instance, is a website run by the University of Colorado Boulder which hosts free Science Technology Engineering and Math simulations.

Valentino said the faculty she has worked with on introducing OERs has used a wide variety of alternative open materials.  In total, 26 grants were given out, each faculty member getting $1000 each. Valentino also mentioned that another faculty member had written their own materials, and so was given an extra $500. 

The campus bookstore, the Wildcat Shop, is run as a nonprofit and therefore has no incentive to oppose OERs. However, according to Valentino, the publishing companies that sell textbooks are pushing back by connecting their textbooks to non-reusable products.

“When you go in as a student, you often try to buy a used textbook,” Hopkins said. “Well if that textbook had a CD or a DVD or a code that goes with it in order to do your work, you’re kind of out of luck. You’re paying for the textbook, but what they really get you on is that code so you can do your Cengage homework or your McGraw Hill homework or your Pearson homework.

According to mathematics professor Emilie Hancock, there is a big movement within mathematics circles towards using OERs. These include online textbooks that are completely free. 

“Calculus textbooks kind of contain the same information in different ways,” Hancock said. “So if we can find a free way to do it and still have the same conversation as you would in a math class elsewhere, then I don’t see why you can’t do something like that.”

One of the obstacles, though, is that many math and science classes require that students pay for online coursework. Hancock said she has many colleagues who are trying to create a free, open-source version of these programs. 

Because these OERs are being built with the contributions of professors, they are usually based on peer-reviewed information that is readily available and researchable to the public. Faculty members creating their courses can use chapters from one resource, incorporate materials from other books, and include research and articles from all sorts of sources. According to Hopkins, the information is already there, but most faculty simply don’t have the time to assemble it all.

“One of the ways we’ve convinced faculty is that a lot of faculty don’t realize that students just don’t buy the book,” Valentino said. “So they’re teaching in a two-tier classroom where half the students have the materials available to succeed and half of the students don’t. With OERs everybody has the materials on the first day of class and this evens the playing field.”