How textbook alternatives can help reduce the cost of education

September 4, 2020 | Campus Life
A few years ago, Dr. Craig Blatz set out to make education more accessible for students in his psychology courses by introducing an open education resource (OER) textbook in his PSYC 212: Introduction to Research Methods course. Now, the associate professor uses OER, no-cost readings (journal articles that are open access or available through library subscriptions) or other low-cost alternatives in every single course he teaches.

“I try to cap textbook costs for my courses at $30,” he says. “If a student took all five of the courses I regularly teach, they would pay about $50 total for textbooks and resources.”

That savings can make a big difference, says Bachelor of Science student Alycia Stewart, who was among the first students to use an OER in Blatz’s PSYC 212 course. While she says she had never even heard the term OER before, she had a good experience, thought the content supplemented her prof’s notes and the course well, and definitely appreciated that the textbook was free. 

OER defined

Open education resources (OERs) are digital learning materials that are openly licenced – in the public domain or released under a Creative Commons licence that permits them to be used and repurposed by others. Anyone can use the work without obtaining permission or paying a publisher.

Looking back, Stewart says that experience is part of what makes her so passionate about her role in advocating for OER options as vice-president, academic of the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU).

“With increasing tuition and the other financial burdens students face, not having to pay for a textbook can mean more money for groceries or rent,” she says.

IMG_Craig_Blatz_OER_20Freeing up funds for students was certainly a big part of Blatz’s motivation in shifting his approach. If every professor switched to using at least some OERs, says Blatz, the cost of education would decrease – particularly for students in 100- and 200-level classes.

“By switching the book in a single course, the total cost of taking that course goes down significantly, even when the tuition to take that course is going up,” he explains.

OERs, however, aren’t necessarily a panacea.

Blatz explains opting to use OERs means having fewer textbooks to choose from and missing out on the bells and whistles that traditional textbook publishers more frequently provide (test banks, practice quizzes, etc.). And while the OERs he uses in his courses are as good as the average book on the market, he says they’re probably not quite as good as the best textbook out there (some of which have been written by professors at MacEwan who use them to share what they learn through their research). Even so, these are sacrifices Blatz is willing to make.

“In my courses, what is gained by using the best book I identify often isn’t worth the $200 or so the 60 students would have to spend,” he says. “I try to imagine if I was given $12,000 to spend on a section. Would I choose to spend it on a book upgrade? If the answer is no, I choose the OER.”

But providing a low- or no-cost option isn’t the only benefit OERs have to offer. Faculty members can also alter an OER textbook to suit their needs – an advantage that requires an investment of time, but one Blatz believes is worthwhile.

“I am happy with how things have turned out,” he says. “I now use books I know all of my students can afford, and my courses have a really nice alignment of textbook and class material. It feels good to be a very small part of the solution to the growing cost of post-secondary education.”  

But I prefer print

If you prefer to have a hard copy of an OER resource, you can print your own using the printers in the library for a minimal charge per page. Or visit any print/copy shop (or Print and Mail Services at MacEwan) where they can print and bind the book for you. Make sure to inform the printer you use that the work has a Creative Commons licence and can be freely copied in full for non-commercial educational purposes. 

 Blatz isn’t alone. Many faculty members are exploring OER options – or even building their own OER textbooks. Six MacEwan faculty members are currently creating five textbooks without price tags with funding from MacEwan’s Open Textbook Fellowship Grant. The grants of up to $5,000 each were created with the support of the Library, the Office of the Provost, SAMU and the Office of Teaching and Learning Services. The textbooks will eventually make their way into MacEwan Open Books, an open access publishing service being piloted by the Library.

“It’s an exciting opportunity not only for the faculty creating the textbooks, but also for the students who will use them,” says Stewart. “We hope this project will pave the way for more alternatives that benefit students.”

Alison Foster, who leads the Open Textbook Fellowship Grant project alongside her fellow librarian Robyn Hall, says that in addition to the faculty members who received the grants, there are also many faculty members who are quietly using OER in their courses.

“OER usage is becoming more normalized within academia – it’s seen as a strong complement to other teaching materials – and we’re discovering that many faculty members are adjusting their approach to resource selection for their students.”

The availability of OER has increased dramatically with an increasing number of peer-reviewed texts, reading and other complementary resources. And MacEwan librarians are standing by, says Foster, ready to help faculty members select OER readings and textbooks for their courses.

“It’s important to note that OER doesn’t necessarily need to be an ‘all or nothing’ choice,” says Foster. “It can be implemented gradually with a few readings that complement other resources. There are many options and paths – all of which can mean long-term benefits for our faculty members and learners.”  


Textbooks without price tags

Six faculty members from across MacEwan University are reimagining the way they use textbooks with help from a new internal Open Textbook Fellowship Grant.

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