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Free or low-cost college textbooks? SLCC program makes it possible

SALT LAKE CITY — Like most college students, Jeff Cunningham can easily plan how much he'll need to budget for tuition and fees.

But the cost of textbooks and other instructional materials?

"It's a gut punch," said Cunningham, who is taking classes at Salt Lake Community College toward a bachelor's degree in physics, which will be his second undergraduate degree.

"Until they release the book list, you've got no idea what it's going to cost," he said. Cunningham has designs on working for NASA as a "second act" once he retires from his current career as a firefighter.

SLCC's Open Educational Resources initiative is working to help relieve that burden.

Open Educational Resources are any type of educational material that is in the public domain or introduced with an open license. That means anyone can legally and freely use them, copy them, adapt them and share them.

The resources can include full courses, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software and other tools.

This academic year, SLCC is on track to offer more than 1,000 class sections that rely on open educational resources. Most of the courses are math and English classes, followed by history, geography, education, biology, business and others. Students save an average of $100 per course, according to program administrators.

If a student prefers a textbook, they can be purchased from the college bookstore at substantially lower prices than textbooks that are not in the public domain.

For Brenda Gardner, associate professor of math, the initiative means some of her students pay just $5 or minimal printing costs for instructional materials for her developmental math classes as opposed to $120 for a traditional textbook.

SLCC students include traditional first-year students taking general education classes, refugees and nontraditional students, some of whom are retraining for a new career or attending college for the first time. All seek to curb the costs of their college educations.

"I had a student who was like 'I'm living out of my car. I can't buy a textbook.' You're so happy that they're there and they're trying to better their lives. You want to remove every financial burden from their lives you can possibly remove. I think we're ahead of the pack on that, moving more and more to (open educational resources) where we can," she said.

More than 80 percent of SLCC students surveyed in 2016 reported that they have delayed buying textbooks because of cost. More than 30 percent of SLCC students said they did not registering for a course due to textbook costs, according to the survey by the Open Education Group and the Utah Academic Libraries Consortium.

Gardner, an early adapter to the initiative, said using open resources has reinvigorated her teaching career because her instruction is no longer limited to a single textbook. She is able to package open education resources that work best to teach certain concepts and add projects that help her students meet learning objectives.

“I own the curriculum,” she said.

Gardner, who has utilized open educational resources for four years, said she believes the educational freedom bolstered her passion for teaching. And that resulted in better outcomes for her students.

“I think it was because my enthusiasm was back,” said Gardner, who has taught college-level courses for 16 years.

According to SLCC officials, some 35,000 students have saved nearly $3 million in the past three years through OPEN SLCC by using open educational resources as an alternative to traditional textbooks.

Jason Pickavance, SLCC's director of educational initiatives, said he believes faculty buy-in is tied to three factors: a commitment to reducing financial barriers at an institution committed to open entry, greater flexibility with curriculum, and creating a means for all students to be ready to go on Day 1 by accessing the PDF file posted on their class page.

"Obviously the main thing that’s been driving interest in open resources has been the rising cost of traditional textbooks. When I was a student, you never enjoyed buying textbooks. When I was a student in the early '90s, a textbook was maybe $30 or $50 if it was really outrageous. It’s not uncommon now to see for a general education course a textbook that’s $100, $150 or $200," he said.

In some disciplines, such as mathematics, the concepts haven't changed for hundreds of years.

"The idea that an algebra text would need to go into a fifth, sixth or 10th edition is, in many cases, indefensible," he said.

"Often what you would see would not be a sincere attempt to add value but really the new editions were about disrupting the used textbook market."

Professors who have adopted "open" resources enjoy assembling peer-reviewed instructional materials, which can include digitized textbooks, that allow them to tailor their instruction around objectives that are consistent across public colleges and universities in the state.

SLCC's open educational resources program is one of the largest in the country, something Pickavance attributes to faculty members' willingness to innovate and their commitment to "open" education.

The effort is also supported by the college's bookstore website, which allows students to search for open educational resources as they build their class schedules

Daniel Poole, assistant professor of sociology, said open education resource not only makes things easier for students to access instructional material, it enables the class to proceed more efficiently.

"I can assign (open educational resources) material and everybody has it. Day 1 I can say 'Here's the pdf. I can post it on the class page and we're ready to go," Poole said in a university video.

Previously, there could be lag in assigning homework while some students waited for a book ordered online to arrive in the mail or for students' financial aid to process so they can buy textbooks.

But it is more work for professors to aggregate open resources, he said.

"It takes a lot of work to find resources. You actually feel you are contributing opposed to when I first started as an adjunct. I'd show up, they'd give me a book and some slide shows and I'd go and hit next and say what was on the slide, pretty much. You can teach that way but it's very demoralizing, not very fun and not very good for students either," Poole said.

After years of working with students who include refugees, veterans and others of limited means, Poole said it is gratifying to remove barriers to their educations.

"I'm the faculty adviser for the social work club. One thing we do on campus is a food pantry. So many students are relying on food from the food pantry just to be able to eat. So half my day I see that happening and then I go to the classroom and say 'and you have to buy a $160 textbook to pass my class,' Poole said.

"I know they're deciding, 'Do I pay for rent? Do I pay for food? Or do I pay for my textbook.' That just causes me some ethical concerns."