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Georgia Highlands battling costly textbooks

AS SEEN IN THE DAILY NEWS TRIBUNE: http://daily-tribune.com/newsx/item/5402-georgia-highlands-battling-costly-online-textbooks


Georgia Highlands College is taking another step to make higher education more affordable for students by saying goodbye to expensive textbooks.
For fall semester 2015, the college introduced open educational resources — free online textbooks and other educational materials that are accessible to anyone — and saved students almost half a million dollars in textbook costs.
GHC also recently joined the University System of Georgia’s Affordable Learning Georgia initiative that promotes student success by providing alternatives to expensive textbooks.
“Nearly 70 percent of students don’t buy textbooks,” Vice President For Academic Affairs Renva Watterson said in an article on the GHC website. “There are many reasons for this, but one fundamental reason is they can’t afford them. When you have students sitting in class and they don’t have a text, which is the fundamental learning tool, then you put students at further risk of academic disaster.”
With the average textbook cost for each class being $200 to $300, students saved $487,170.50 in textbook costs for fall semester by using OERs, the article said.
“We are saving our students a lot of money,” Watterson said. “We are here to educate, and we want to know all the ways we can best keep money in our students’ pockets so they can continue to go to school and complete.”
Besides free textbooks, the new OERs also provide video resources, software, labs and an enhanced textbook experience with hyperlinks to many other resources.
But instructors can’t just go online and pick out a ready-made textbook that fits their courses — they have to fit their courses to the textbooks.
“I really want to stress that faculty, or entire departments, who adopt OERs must redesign the whole course in most cases,” said Dr. Jesse Bishop, GHC’s director of faculty academy and senior instructional designer. “... A faculty member can't just pick an OER and then assign it to students. Above all else, instructors have to ensure that students have achieved the course learning objectives. Assignments are designed to measure that student learning, and textbooks, whether OER or not, provide the content and information necessary to complete the assignments. Even though it's hard work, there is mounting evidence that it is important, productive work to redesign and adopt OERs.”
Dr. Sean Callahan, assistant professor of social sciences, said he was willing to redesign his three psychology courses “because it removes barriers to education.”
“Too often, I’ve had students drop my class because they couldn’t afford the textbook and/or access to the software for the course,” he said. “Those students were enthusiastic and eager to learn but, for several different reasons, weren’t able to acquire the materials and could not successfully participate in and complete the course.”
Callahan said he believes “any student who wants to pursue a college degree should have the opportunity to do so.”
“Providing excellent educational opportunities to a diverse population is part of the mission of the college,” he said. “Using OERs instead of costly textbooks helps increase diversity among the college and serves students that come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Bishop agreed with Callahan.
“There’s this feeling when students walk into a classroom and see that there’s a $300 textbook they can’t afford that makes that knowledge seem reserved for a certain class of people,” he said. “OER textbooks say this is for everyone, and it’s no longer hidden behind a paywall. As Dr. Callahan noted, this work is about removing barriers to success. If a textbook is a barrier, we have to be thinking about how to navigate around it.”
Bishop said he doesn’t know if GHC will ever use OERs completely, due to certain courses that will still need to use a textbook, “but that’s OK.”
“There are some subjects and concepts that rely on continuous updates to the content, especially in health sciences, where new procedures are routinely included in textbook updates,” he said. “Other courses focus on more contemporary works that are copyrighted. We want to exert some control over the cost of textbooks, and just the availability of OERs in some classes can force publishers to lower the costs of other textbooks. Whenever we can, we want to remove as many barriers to successful completion, and textbooks can sometimes be a barrier.”
English courses, particularly 20th and 21st century American literature, may continue requiring textbooks because they “sometimes have higher hurdles to overcome when exploring OERs,” Bishop said.
“... If we're teaching students to write in the 21st century, we have to make sure they have access to strong writing in our contemporary moment,” he said. “Relying only on works that are in the public domain means that students are looking at works that are typically many decades old. It is important to have students read those classics, however we might categorize them, but they need to know conventions of the 21st century to be ready to write in their workplaces.”
But he and his colleagues continue to look at “other innovative ways to meet the same goals of lowering costs,” Bishop said.
“Several English faculty members are experimenting with low-cost options, and as an member of that department, I've been involved with some of those efforts,” he said. “We haven't found exactly the right solution for students and our curriculum, but we're actively looking into ways to help our students.”
The free OERs are produced and paid for in a number of ways: libraries creating “libguides” that collect resources and give students and faculty access through the library website, outside groups or foundations offering grants to people who will create OERs and instructors who get tired of adopting a new textbook every few years or want better examples of concepts creating works as part of their job or as a personal effort, Bishop said.  
The ALG initiative also has provided grants to help faculty members adopt OERs.
“Without those grants, which allow for faculty to have the time to create or discover OERs and implement the needed course redesign, OER adoption would be much more difficult,” Bishop said. 
Now that GHC has one semester of using online textbooks under its belt, most of Callahan’s students have “expressed positive responses” to the OpenStax Psychology eTextbook he’s adopted.
“They like having access to a book on the first day of class,” he said. “And so do I. OERs not only remove barriers to learning for students. It also removes barriers to teaching for instructors. I don’t have to slow down or backtrack to cover content again. They can access the book on their smartphones and tablets.”
A few students, however, preferred hard-copy textbooks because they didn’t like reading from a screen, Callahan said. But because the book is online, they can print the pages they need or they could buy the hard copy.
As an instructor, Callahan said the flexibility and options that are possible with online textbooks are “definitely an advantage.”
“I like the e-textbook,” he said. “There are some drawbacks, however. You don’t get all the bells and whistles, like online activities and analytics, which come with the texts from major publishers. So I have to supplement with videos, journal articles, websites and lots of activities in class. But that also allows me to customize my course and focus on topics not covered as deeply in the e-textbook.”
Bishop said students appreciated the financial savings of OERs, and both students and instructors had few complaints about them.
“There have been some minor bumps along the way, but most of the instructors I have worked with are generally happy about the adoptions,” he said. “Many of the new adopters are excited to redesign their classes and save students some money along the way.”
One common criticism has been online textbooks are “not of the same quality as a traditional textbook, but I have not found this to be true, personally,” Bishop said.
“In cases where an instructor thinks that an OER is lacking in some way, the ‘open’ aspect of those works often allows for the instructor to make changes,” he said. “I know people who have added more recent examples of events to their OERs, and those changes can become part of the original OER. That's not an option with a traditional textbook.” 
Another concern is the pressure on faculty members to adopt an OER “when it might not be the best fit for a course,” he said.
“Just like publishers feel pressure from OER, I think faculty do as well,” he said. “In English, we're very attentive to the fact that we haven't adopted OERs as quickly as some other disciplines and departments. ... From a faculty development perspective, I would never want people to adopt resources that don't meet the needs of the course or that might impede student learning.”

Page last updated: May 3, 2016