February 11, 2022

Engaged Students, No-Cost Books

The entrance to the Merrill-Cazier Library on a sunny day.
Merrill-Cazier Library

New program hopes to make course materials more accessible to students and teachers

By Kelsie Holman, CHaSS Communications Journalist

UPDATE: This article has been updated with more recent figures relating to the amount of money saved due to the OER program.

For many students, the rising price of textbooks is more than just a minor inconvenience. As cost of living increases, students are being forced to prioritize expenses which can negatively impact their personal and academic lives by increasing rates of food insecurity and poor performance in classes with unaffordable textbooks. Luckily for students at Utah State University, a team of employees at the Merrill-Cazier Library are on a mission to get more faculty members to switch to a cheaper, more flexible solution.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are textbooks and educational materials that are free for students to use and teachers to modify. USU’s library has a team of staff members dedicated to helping faculty members find and even make their own OER for classes.

“Quite honestly, the cost of some of these textbooks and course materials are difficult to manage. It’s not like students are saying they don’t want to buy these textbooks because they want to go have fun. They are having to choose between buying textbooks and having groceries for the week,” said Stephanie Western, the OER program manager.

Faculty members from any college can apply for OER grants which gives them the funding to replace expensive class materials with OER and allows them the freedom to modify the materials to suit their needs. Faculty who receive OER grants are given money based on how intensive their search for materials will be: adopting an existing OER grants $500; adapting an OER grants $1,000; and creating an OER from scratch can grant up to $3,000.

These grants may seem small, but their impact on students’ lives is enormous. According to Western, the 2017 CHaSS grants funded 8 projects at a total of $11,000. Since that initial investment in Open Educational Resources, CHaSS courses taught with the material adopted, adapted or created during the 2017 CHaSS grant cycle have generated over $140,000 worth of savings spread amongst 1,695 students.

“OER helps so many students access education. If students have financial troubles, it allows them to still have access to really good education resources. It makes university more accessible,” said Breanna Hellewell, a student member of the OER team.

Some colleges have even made switching to OER a college-wide priority. USU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHaSS) has made it the college’s mission to encourage as many faculty as possible to make the switch to OER.

“Affordability is our big concern, especially in our general education classes. Our big goal would be that all of our general education courses would have no textbook cost associated with them,” said Matthew Sanders, associate dean of CHaSS.

CHaSS faculty were among the first USU faculty members to receive OER grants and implement these resources regularly within their classes. Eight faculty members originally received the grant and almost 1,000 students have been directly impacted by the implementation of OER.

Nolan Weil, from the Intensive English Language Institute, was one of these faculty members. Weil took the time during a sabbatical to write and publish his own OER textbook for the capstone culture course in the IELI program which is also offered as a general education course. Two IELI faculty now use OER instead of a commercial text at no cost to students.

“It was better for me to select the material I wanted to focus on and it was better for the students to have someone who knew their language needs author the text,” said Weil.

CHaSS is taking an extra step towards implementing this program across the college by partnering with the library to assist faculty members in creating new OER for their individual classes. OER take time to create or adapt to fit course requirements and this partnership includes opportunities and incentives for faculty to utilize OER in their classes. Through their collaboration, CHaSS and the library’s OER team are dedicated to helping increase accessibility and the quality of instruction for students.

“The goal is to help faculty create teaching materials that reach beyond textbooks and slideshows into new forms of media. We want to provide students with resources that embrace modern learning in an affordable way,” said Sanders.

According to Justin Barton, CHaSS development officer, initiatives like these make it so even small donations can make a large impact on students’ lives.

“This is a really great way for donors who aren’t sure what $50 can realistically do for a student to see the mileage they can get out of their dollar,” said Barton.

As textbook costs soar, turning to OER as a solution for affordability issues has never been more important. These resources have already had a significant impact on student lives and those benefits will only be multiplied as programs like these are implemented across colleges and the university as a whole.


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