English instructor Kate Watts cringes when she imagines students shelling out upwards of $80 for a textbook. She had the same reservations many faculty members have about free, open-sourced, online material. But she did her research, asked experts, consulted with colleagues and found solutions to save her students money.
The online textbook Watts uses in her English course isn’t perfect, but neither was the expensive alternative. The open source format allows her to pick and choose the portions of the text she wants to focus on, and she can plug in alternative material as she sees fit.
“If we wanted to stay with a traditional textbook, it was going to be awfully tricky to keep the cost down,” Watts says. “I looked online and found a real contender. Ultimately, I liked the online book because it did what our previous book couldn’t do. It’s not necessarily a really pretty book. It doesn’t have a lot of pictures and graphics, but those are pretty easily supplemented.”
Watts saved the 125 students in English 301 thousands of dollars this semester alone. She also gained a new perspective on course design.
“The online materials are updated regularly, they’re easy for students to transport and access, and the material is good,” Watts says. “In many ways, it’s really freeing. I can use a handful of pages from the online book and feel no guilt about not using all of it because the students haven’t paid for it. I don’t have to commit to a single book for the course.”
While saving students money was a major factor in Matthew Bumpus’ decision to move away from a traditional textbook, he also began reevaluating the objectives for his course, and found materials that better aligned with those objectives.
“It’s easy to focus on the zero cost for students, but from my perspective, it’s also a better course,” says Bumpus, who incorporated open education resources in his human development course. “There’s a better link between course objectives and what students are reading and interacting with.”
Bumpus found that the textbook he had used for many years in his research methods course was lacking in some areas. Not only that, students reported the book was boring and not useful.
“Initially, reading students’ evaluations, I thought, ‘Well, sorry, it’s research methods and the material isn’t going to be all that compelling – you just have to deal with it,” Bumpus says.
But he began re-thinking his course, and the course materials. He wanted to incorporate more program evaluation material to reflect the current trends in the field, and found that online materials were more suited to addressing those topics.
He is now using an online textbook, supplemented by online materials and a free program evaluation handbook developed by the Kellogg Foundation.
“I think I made the mistake of adhering to a traditional class model just because that’s how I’d always done it,” Bumpus says. “It was breaking out of a mindset of what I’d always done, and instead focus on what was most effective for the students. The non-traditional resources I’ve used have been better received than a traditional text.”
Richard Zack has been a strong advocate for students for many years as a WSU faculty member. As a former chair of the faculty senate, he heard pleas from student leadership about rising textbook costs, and set out to find solutions for his students.
Zack redesigned his Entomology 101 class around open education resources, and as interim associate dean for academic programs, he’s helped other courses in the College of Agricultural Human, and Natural Resource Sciences eliminate costly textbooks.
“Way back when I was an undergraduate, I remember a lot of classes where we never even opened the book, and I think that’s what faculty have to ask themselves,” Zack says. “There is so much available for free online. A lot of what we cover in class is current, what’s going on today. It means you’ve got to keep up with the topics that are important to class. But if you can put the time and energy into that then you’re teaching a much more relevant, up-to-date course.”
While many WSU faculty members are taking the initiative in reducing classroom material costs for their students, WSU has also established partnerships and programs to enhance access to open education resources (OERs) and enable faculty to explore textbook alternatives. Applications for a second round of grant funding for OERs will be available early next year. The Open Textbook Network and OpenStax partnerships offer thousands of open-sourced materials for faculty, and the newly established Pressbooks format allows faculty to publish their own materials online, with support from WSU staff. For more information on open education resources at WSU, visit provost.wsu.edu/open-education-resources.