VCU Libraries initiative has saved VCU students more than $7M in textbook costsJanuary 9, 2023 Photo by Jay Paul
ore than three in four college students in Virginia worry about the cost of textbooks and course materials. More than a third say the costs have led them to take fewer classes, opt not to register for certain courses or to receive a poor grade. Students with disabilities, those who receive financial aid, and those who are first generation or come from an underrepresented population are particularly affected, according to the statewide Virginia Course Materials Survey published this fall.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, a VCU Libraries program is working to alleviate that burden. The Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative provides support to faculty to help them identify, customize or create free alternatives to expensive course materials.
So far, the initiative has saved VCU students $7.2 million and impacted over 77,000 students over the past five years.
“VCU Libraries’ values include engaging our communities to evolve to meet their needs,” said Irene Herold, Ph.D., dean of libraries and university librarian. “Supporting the path to zero-cost textbooks is a demonstrable way we live our values. When students tell me that without the Libraries’ initiative they would be deciding between food or purchasing course materials, I know this initiative is an imperative that makes a difference in student wellness leading to student success. I am so proud of the work VCU Libraries does in making a difference for our students.”
In fiscal year 2022, the initiative saved students an estimated $1.57 million across 268 courses taught by 261 faculty members. The total number of students helped is difficult to calculate because they may be enrolled in more than one impacted class, but VCU Libraries calculates there were 17,541 student seats in classes supported by the initiative.
As part of the initiative, VCU’s Affordable Course Content Awards program provides funding for faculty to adopt zero-cost resources and the creation of openly licensed alternatives to expensive textbooks.
In July, eight faculty members in VCU’s departments of Political Science, Psychology, and Math in the College of Humanities and Sciences; along with Focused Inquiry; the School of Business; the School of Arts; and the School of Medicine received awards from the program to create or customize open materials with a potential for large impact at and beyond VCU. When implemented, the projects are estimated to save VCU students more than $165,000 annually, with the potential to save more than $325,000 upon expanded adoptions. In the initial implementation, the projects are expected to impact more than 2,000 students each year, with the potential to reach more than 7,500 students annually upon expansion.
“One of the things that’s been most exciting to me since coming to VCU is just the interest [in open and affordable content] from faculty,” said Jessica Kirschner, the open educational resources librarian who leads VCU Libraries’ textbook affordability efforts. “We’ve had a record number of applications for our grant program over the past two years, which blew me out of the water. Our faculty are engaged and interested and by and large realize the impact that this work can have on their students.”
Through the initiative, Kirschner works to assist in the creation of new resources, as well as locating, adopting and adapting existing course materials, including library materials and open educational resources.
Open course materials not only support students by eliminating costs, they also can enable better learning experiences and optimize academic outcomes for instructors and students, Kirschner said. Rather than relying on a textbook, she said, a professor can draw from various open resources to customize their class in a way that makes students more engaged.
“When I talk to faculty, I always like to say: ‘Why form your class around the textbook when you can form a textbook around your class?’” she said.
An interactive textbook with student input
Kathryn Murphy-Judy, Ph.D., a professor of French in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received two Affordable Course Content Awards in 2017 and 2018 in support of her project to develop “Atelier RÉEL,” an interactive, open-access textbook for intermediate French.
“Part of the reason I’m doing this is because the students just started getting louder and more vociferous about how much they were paying for the textbooks and how much they hated it,” Murphy-Judy said. “And so I started talking with students and asking them: ‘Hey, what would you like to see in a textbook?’ That’s what’s really unique about what we've created — the students have been a part of building the book from the very beginning.”
The interactive textbook features online, interactive material, including video with embedded quizzes, exercises that provide immediate feedback and live conversations with native speakers. Murphy-Judy said her students have found it to be more relevant and interesting. As an example, she described how a French textbook her students previously used had outdated references to Madonna.
“This is a French course talking about Madonna in 2015. And I just went, no, no. There’s so many really great musicians [singing in French] that I know my students are listening to because they send me the clips and they say, ‘Hey, do you know this? Have you heard this one?’ And so I was like, ‘OK, this is the music you guys want to listen to, let’s use that.’”
Murphy-Judy — who is just one of many foreign language professors at VCU incorporating open and affordable course content in their classes — said a big part of the project over the last few years has been scaffolding the course materials that are entirely in French and written by native French speakers for other native speakers. Scaffolding in foreign language instruction means providing contextual support.
“Obviously my students are not native speakers, and they need scaffolding,” she said. “So I go in there and build the scaffolding and then we’ll ask the students: ‘Does this help your learning? Or is there some better way for me to make sure that you understand how to read this, how to talk about this, how to acquire more vocabulary?’ It’s a dialogue between me as an instructor, the students and the material they’re learning.”
An emphasis on accessibility
VCU students can search for classes based on textbook costs, and can find classes that have free or low-cost course materials. VCU makes this information available on Banner, or the VCU Schedule of Classes.
Aryan Venkanagari, a sophomore information systems major in the School of Business, is taking Business 201: Foundations of Business this semester, which uses an open-educational resource textbook. It’s the second class he’s taken so far that used OER rather than a commercially published textbook.
“I assure you, the more textbooks I don’t have to pay for, the better,” he said. “College is expensive enough as is, so not having to spend more on my textbooks is of great value to me, and I greatly appreciate the efforts of the professors who took the time to choose and prepare textbooks for their students which they do not have to pay for.”
Classes that use open and affordable course content are a relief for students’ wallets, but also their mental health, he said. Plus, they ensure that students don’t have to spend time trying to find cheaper options for required textbooks.
Venkanagari, who is working at VCU Libraries as an open and affordable course content assistant, said the initiative is benefiting VCU students.
“Many students cannot afford certain classes due to textbook costs, so they have to look for classes that don’t require paid textbooks even if it does not best suit their interests,” he said. “This is where the [Open and Affordable Course Content] initiative comes in. By promoting and encouraging the usage of OER, school becomes more affordable for students, allowing them to take classes that better suit their interests, not worry about extra textbook costs, and pursue their education with fewer barriers in the process.”
In Virginia, VCU has been a leader in advocating for adoption of open and affordable course content. In the last two fiscal years, VCU has successfully competed for and received close to $100,000 in grants from VIVA, Virginia’s academic library consortium, in support of the development of free course materials. VIVA conducted the Virginia Course Materials Survey that shed light on the impact of course material costs on educational equity in Virginia.
Jimmy Ghaphery, associate dean for scholarly communications and publishing with VCU Libraries, said it is noteworthy that VCU has remained committed to supporting open and affordable course content, even amid challenging budget times.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to consistently offer local awards and the Affordable Course Content awards program that gives faculty financial help at migrating their courses,” he said. “And the other thing that we’ve done that’s innovative — and the credit goes to the VCU community — is that half of that funding in the last two or three years has been supported by donors.”
For more information, please visit: www.library.vcu.edu/research-teaching/open-and-affordable-course-content/. To support VCU Libraries’ Advancing Affordable Course Content, please visit: https://www.support.vcu.edu/give/vculibrariesmakeagift?des=240674.
By Brian McNeill