Worcester State University students buying textbooks.

Pilot Program Helps Faculty Improve Teaching and Saves Students Money

April 19, 2017
By: Guest Contributor

What if students didn’t have to worry about the significant expense of textbooks, but still had access to important academic resources to help them learn?

A pilot program encompassing 10 classes this spring semester hopes to answer that question. The results could help change attitudes about traditional academic resources, while saving students thousands of dollars in textbook expenses.

“We are leading the national trend,” said Library Director Matt Bejune at a recent forum on the WSU Library Open Educational Resources Initiative pilot program. “That’s a wonderful thing, but also a scary thing as well.”

Collectively, students in these 10 classes saved $35,000 by not having to purchase textbooks, according to Bejune. Instead, they relied on comprehensive course materials, constructed by the faculty teaching the courses, which outlined course topics in detail and provided links to open educational resources, including non-traditional resources such as videos and podcasts.

Open educational resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that are free of cost and access barriers, and which also carry legal permission for open use generally by use of an open license.

The pilot program was funded through a $10,000 grant from Reach Out For Schools. Ten $1,000 grants were awarded in fall 2016 to faculty teaching spring semester courses. Winning proposals had to show a potential cost savings for students, but also an improved learning and instruction plan. Well-defined goals and an assessment process were also required, according to Assistant Librarian Vicki Gruzynski.

Despite having a limited amount of time to create the manuals, faculty jumped at the chance to incorporate resources that applied directly to their subject matter, rather than be restricted to expensive textbooks that could be out of date within a short amount of time.

“When we looked at our students, we found that many of them are working to pay for school. We thought, maybe textbooks are a controllable expense,” said Associate Professor of Business Administration and Economics Elizabeth Siler, Ph.D. In fact, according to a report by the U.S. Public Research Interest Group, the average college student spends $1,200 a year on textbooks, and 65 percent of students have skipped purchasing a textbook due to cost.

Siler and Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Economics Miriam Plavin-Masterman, Ph.D., used the grant to create a textbook for their organizational behavior class. “Culture matters in organizations,” Siler said. “Traditionally, textbooks don’t show cultural differences very well, and I would assign outside reading to fill in the gaps. We want our students to understand that effective organizations can look very different.”

The material in the manuals reference classic material, such as academic papers and open-source textbooks, but also incorporates podcasts, videos, online databases, and other new media. The manual also acts as a comprehensive syllabus, since every topic is clearly spelled out with supporting resources and assignments in each unit.

At the OER forum in March, students were unanimous in support, both because it saves them money, and the fact that the material is more up to date than what is found in a printed textbook. One student noted he “lucked out” because two of his classes were part of the pilot program.

Faculty said that they are eager to build off the pilot program and improve the course materials that they created and move beyond relying on textbooks.

“It was a lot of work putting this together in a month,” said Assistant Professor 0f World Languages Elizabeth Osborne, Ph.D., who teaches Spanish Composition II, a required course for Spanish majors. “There’s a huge gap in Spanish language material that I had to address. There are still some tweaks needed, but the bones are here, and I’m happy with how it turned out.”

“I read a lot of textbooks and I’m never happy with them,” said Professor of Philosophy Hank Theriault, Ph.D. “This project gives you the space to create a better textbook yourself. And now that I’ve done it once, I know how to do it again.”

According to Bejune, the WSU Library intends to offer another round of mini-grants in support of faculty who redesign courses based around open educational resources. “The results of our pilot initiative exceeded our expectations,” he said. “We can’t wait to see what comes next!”

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