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Open access textbooks help save students money, keep them in class, officials say

College students spend more than $1,000 on books and supplies every year, according to a recent College Board study, but a program through the North Dakota University System and UND is making those costs a little less daunting.

Open educational resources, also known as OER and sometimes referred to as open-access resources, allow students to save money on textbooks through a free online textbook.

The number of classes using OERs exclusively across the university system has increased from just nine classes in the fall of 2014 to 240 system-wide courses in the fall of 2017, according to a recent state audit report.

In total, almost 650 courses have utilized OER material exclusively during that time. The report stated those numbers translate to savings of between $1.1 million and $2.4 million.

Stephanie Walker, who heads up the open-access resource committee at UND, helped expand the program when she came to UND in 2015. Walker has been working with open-access resources since the early 2000s.

When she arrived on campus in 2015, the program wasn’t well organized, and few professors offered any type of open-access resources for students to use.

Now UND offers more than 45 different classes that use open access resources, Walker said.

Work to be done

North Dakota legislators set aside $110,000 of funding three years ago for “OER training” -- $30,000 for systemwide faculty development and the remainder dispersed among five of the system’s 11 institutions, including UND, which received around $48,000 in funding.

The UND student government also helped make an investment in the program by moving $75,000 in the student reserve fund over to UND’s OER program, and the provost’s office also kicked in $25,000, Walker said.

Walker is searching for grant money to keep the program growing at UND. A group is working on creating a Great Plains Open Textbook Network, which would be a systemwide portal with links to every institution’s OER content and other relevant resources, she said.

However, that also takes money, she said.

Despite the program’s growing popularity across the system, there’s still work to be done. One “significant barrier” for use of the program was general knowledge about it, according the audit report.

“More than half of the respondents to our faculty survey stated they had no or limited knowledge of (open education resources),” the report stated, noting about 36 percent of respondents indicated they were not aware of or didn’t know much about the open resources.

Another 22 percent of respondents indicated they were somewhat aware of OER but weren’t sure how the resource could be used.

At UND, Walker said faculty sometimes struggle listing their OER material because, when they list their materials in the bookstore, there’s only one option for open resources: yes or no. Some classes offer OER material but still require something else to be purchased; therefore, the class doesn’t get added to the OER list.

Because of that set up, millions of dollars in savings was not counted in the audit report, Walker said. She estimates the program has saved students $6 million over the past four years.

Staying in class

Virginia Clinton, a UND professor, has used the open resources in her Introduction to Psychology class. The book is set up the same way as a textbook, just online.

In some cases, students were paying more for textbooks than they do on rent, had to wait to purchase a book until their financial aid kicked in or they needed the money for other expenses, like getting their vehicle repaired, Clinton said. Not having the textbook can put a student behind from the get-go and potentially hurt their grades, she said.

“I think a lot of times people have this idea that college students are very privileged. They just need to ask mom or dad for a few more bucks, but that’s not the case,” she said, noting the cost of college has increased in general over time.

In addition to using the books in her classroom, Clinton also studies the practice of open resources and conducted a survey with her students about how they felt about it.

Some students said they wish they still had a physical textbook, Clinton said. They can print out the pages or they can go online and purchase the commercial textbook, she added.

Clinton also said she has had fewer students drop out of her class because of the switch to a free, easier-to-access textbook.

“Students will explicitly state that a reason they withdraw from a course is the cost of the textbook if they realize they have to use it,” she said.

Clinton said she knows the students have the book on the first day of class when they are using OERs. There’s no longer any hold up from the bookstore being out of stock or any shipping issues to encounter.

Clinton said she understands OER material isn’t for everyone. For some of the more upper level classes, or for something very specific, open access resources aren’t as readily available.

Professors may enjoy the book and curriculum they have already, but she said she does her best to answer any faculty questions they may have.

It’s not about telling faculty what book to use or how they should teach but instead keeping the option in mind when they are selecting a textbook for the upcoming year, Walker said.

“I don’t want to interfere with a student’s education and learning,” she said. “We just want to provide them the opportunity and options.”

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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