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To ease students’ financial burden, VCU offers faculty incentives to adopt free or low-cost textbook alternatives

January 30, 2017

Hillary Miller, scholarly communications outreach librarian with VCU Libraries, shows one of the library's open textbooks published by the nonprofit OpenStax.
A new initiative at Virginia Commonwealth University is seeking to help cut the costs for students by encouraging VCU faculty members to adopt or create free or low-cost alternatives to expensive textbooks and course materials.

The initiative, sponsored by VCU Libraries, the Office of the Provost, the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and the ALT Lab, will incentivize faculty members to adopt existing low-cost or free course content by offering monetary awards, thereby lowering the financial burden on VCU students.

“The cost of textbooks has outpaced just about every other consumer good, and it’s outpaced even the price of tuition [nationwide],” said Hillary Miller, scholarly communications outreach librarian with VCU Libraries. “We recognize that the cost of education is going up, and there’s not a lot that we can do about that. But one of the most direct ways that libraries and faculty can affect cost for students is through textbooks and course materials.”

Faculty members are invited to apply in two categories:

  • Adopt Awards: Redesign your course to incorporate existing low-cost or free educational resources. $500 per person, capped at $3,000 per course (though special considerations will be given to large departments and other special scenarios).
  • Author Awards: Create a substantially new open textbook or open course content when it is possible to demonstrate that quality resources are not currently available to meet learning objectives. $2,000 per person with a project cap of $6,000 per course. 

The application period opens Feb. 1 and closes March 6. Project timelines may vary but must be completed by June 1, 2018, with implementation expected fall 2018 at the latest.

A series of informational workshops about the program will be held for faculty throughout February. They will be held on Feb. 3 at noon at Academic Learning Commons, suite 4102; Feb. 7 at 12:30 p.m. at Academic Learning Commons, suite 4102; Feb. 14 at 12:30 p.m. at Academic Learning Commons, suite 4102; and Feb. 15 at noon at Tompkins-McCaw Library, lecture room 2-010.

Since 2006, the cost of college textbooks has increased 88 percent, compared with an increase of 21 percent for all items, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Additionally, the cost of textbooks is putting college students at risk of falling behind. A 2016 survey of more than 20,000 college students in Florida found that textbook prices caused 67 percent of them to not purchase a required textbook, 26 percent to drop a class and 20 percent to fail a course.

“This project is one part of our efforts to reduce the cost of course content while maintaining high academic standards,” said Jimmy Ghaphery, associate university librarian for scholarly communications and publishing at VCU Libraries. “When we look at the data about the rising cost of textbooks, [we see] it’s not only hurting students financially but it also is putting them at academic risk.”

The initiative comes as universities across Virginia are taking steps to reduce how much students must pay for textbooks and course materials. The College of William & Mary launched a similar program two years ago, while George Mason University launched one last year and Virginia Tech launched one in the fall.

Surveys of university faculty nationwide show that professors are very sympathetic toward students’ debt and college costs, but there is uncertainty over how they can help. This program, Ghaphery said, is aimed at giving faculty a tangible option to drive down student costs.

“The basic message that we want to communicate to faculty is: Just take a look. I am not in a position to say what is a good biochemistry textbook. But we do want to ask them to take a look at what alternatives are there,” he said. “We’re not trying to dictate anything and we’d never want to sacrifice academic quality. The research up to this point … shows that we’re seeing only positive or no difference in using [open textbooks when compared to traditional textbooks]. But you’re saving the students money.”

As part of the initiative, ALT Lab will help faculty members find, choose and use tools to create digital content that fits their students’ needs.

“Some of those tools may be innovative and interactive while others may be more traditional,” said Tom Woodward, associate director, Learning Innovation. “ALT Lab will also provide custom web development and programming to create workflows and tools to meet specific instructional needs.”

Beyond reducing the financial pinch of textbook costs, the initiative will also allow faculty to create the kind of content that would benefit their students most, he said.

“[Open educational resources] can be a fertile ground for offering alternative paths to shared learning outcomes without the cost falling on the students,” Woodward said. “If a student didn't grasp a particular topic during the lecture or with a traditional textbook, OER content can provide alternative paths to that same knowledge but without additional cost to the student. Differentiation instruction, and more specifically Universal Design for Learning, is recognized as a powerful and research-based teaching strategy, but the cost of additional materials is often a barrier to successful implementation. OER helps lower that barrier and improve options and access for students who might best learn different concepts in different ways or through a combination of media.”

The Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence will offer participating faculty members instructional design and curriculum alignment services. Enoch Hale, Ph.D., director of the center, said the program will give faculty and departments an opportunity to critically assess the texts they’re using in their courses.

“This initiative is really putting the thinking first,” Hale said. “All too often, students enter into a classroom and, understandably so, are relying on faculty to be a sufficient guide. And students aren’t examining, really, the logic of the texts that are presented before them. Our initiative is really putting that choice directly in the hands of the faculty and allows them the power to really articulate the narrative rather than a large publisher or unknown author.”

Plus, Woodward said, by embracing open educational resources, VCU will be participating in a larger national and global community.

“We can take advantage of the great deal of quality materials that have been created by other faculty members and contribute our own work as well,” Woodward said. “The good work we do as part of this project has the potential to help VCU students but also improve the lives of students far beyond VCU.”

Richard Hammack, Ph.D., a professor in Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is the author of “Book of Proof,” a free textbook that he wrote for students in his introduction to mathematical reasoning course and that has been used by roughly 250 universities around the world. He estimates it has saved students more than $3 million, as comparable traditionally published textbooks cost more than $100.

VCU’s affordable textbook initiative, he said, “is a really good idea.”

“Textbook prices are getting out of control,” Hammack said, “and it's good to know VCU is working to combat that.”

Kathryn A. Murphy-Judy, Ph.D., director of Liberal Studies for Early and Elementary Education, coordinator of foreign languages and an associate professor of French in the School of World Studies, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently attended two major national conferences and there was much discussion about the growing importance of open educational resources in language, literature and culture education nationally and internationally at the post-secondary level.

"While one impetus is cost savings for students, the other has everything to do with the quality, currency and 24/7 accessibility of content," she said. "Much content is digitally delivered. Thus, new information, revised theories, changing data can easily be updated to ensure that learners are getting the best knowledge possible. Ditto for transmission or pedagogical strategies. Today's students are learning anytime, anywhere so a digital portable format means they can study on their phones and tablets between classes, on the bus, or in other countries and locales."

"Another strength of new media delivery of OER arises from its social affordances," she added. "Well designed, social media OER means that learners are no longer confined to being passive recipients of information: they can (and should) be active participants in the creation of their own learning in personally meaningful ways."

In addition to the four main partners, VCU’s affordable textbook initiative is also being supported by Academic Technologies in VCU Technology ServicesOnline@VCU, the Office of Disability Support Services in the Division of Student Affairs and Barnes and Noble @ VCU.

Visit Affordable course content for more information on the program.

This article by Brian McNeill was published by VCU News

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