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Faculty member and students collaborate on free textbook

November 29, 2016

The typical Anatomy and Physiology textbook at Heartland used to cost more than $300. Now, students get the content free thanks to open educational resources (OER).

Making College More Affordable

OER are gaining traction throughout colleges and universities nationwide. These online educational materials and textbooks are free and openly licensed.

Their purpose is for everyone to share, contribute, use and reuse knowledge. Similar to traditional textbooks, most OER are written by faculty, reviewed by peers and published online. The difference is the use of Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which typically allow textbook content to be downloaded, edited and expanded upon as long as the author is given credit.

Overall, OER are a way to help make college more affordable. When the cost of college textbooks began exceeding the financial reach of many of her students, business faculty member Nancy Evans felt textbooks were becoming a barrier to education. So, she set out to “find a better way” by reworking an out-of-date OER to replace the book she used for twenty years. While publishers tend to target their products to professors, Evans wanted to focus on the end user: students.

Time for a Change

“Five years ago I started asking students what they wanted in the ideal textbook,” said Evans. “Topping a long list of changes, students said they wanted chapters broken down into relatively short and distinct sections, the elimination of unnecessary information or ‘fluff’, and the inclusion of section takeaways.”

She noted that students will often approach a chapter by beginning with the summary, believing they are being efficient with their reading. “If they did ok on the quiz, it’s reinforcement not to read the entire chapter. Unfortunately, that approach does not lead to deep understanding or lasting learning.”

Based on student survey feedback, Evans asked students to highlight which information they felt was critical, supportive, unimportant and distracting. After scanning the results she immediately discovered patterns and realized what publishers found to be important was actually perceived as fluff, distracting and confusing to readers.

Armed with a mass of information, Evans and a small team began work to recreate an outdated free text. Several changes were made, including:

  • increased use of color and whitespace
  • interactive additions such as links to videos, articles and websites
  • chapter glossaries
  • new and original graphics, including cartoons
  • use of a slightly different business writing style

“I took what I knew about learning, teaching and what is important to students to create a textbook that hopefully, students would want to read.” 

Encouraging Results

Evans completed the test copy during her sabbatical in spring 2016 and piloted the text during the fall 2016 semester in Heartland Business 110 classes.

The results from her work are encouraging. All students responding to a mid-term textbook survey were reading the book and cited several popular features including cost, relevant content and ease of reading.

“The survey results also showed that many students read the textbook on breaks at work, just before class or when they have a few minutes to spare,” added Evans. “While students reported they could read an entire chapter in about an hour, most chapter sections could be read in 15 to 25 minutes.”

Results not only showed improved efficiency in reading, but also how students prefer to get their content, with most choosing digital over print. It’s an interesting result because in previous textbook surveys, Heartland students indicated they preferred hard copies.

According to Evans, OER are good for digital consumers. “Students can download them to multiple devices. When a publisher produces a digital version, it might be less expensive than the print version but it can be very restrictive with limited printing. Plus, students typically have to access the book through a portal which often does not allow downloads and requires an internet connection. Open source textbooks are much more flexible.”

Benefits Outweigh Challenges

The road to creating an OER hasn’t necessarily been easy. Evans notes that when there are high quality options available, it takes little additional faculty time to switch to OER textbooks. This is often the case for general education courses, but options for business classes might require a bit of effort.

“Currently in the business discipline there are several textbooks that require modification,” Evans commented. “You have to be in it to help students because there’s no money to be made with some of the CC licenses.” (Evans book uses a non-commercial restriction within the license, which prevents it from being sold.) She also noted that licenses to use graphics and artwork can be challenging and expensive.

However, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and Evans plans to continue advocating for the use of OER. At Heartland, 32 faculty are scheduled to teach 2,043 students using OER in spring 2017. This amounts to 89 classes making use of free textbooks and course materials. She also spoke at Jefferson College in Missouri and plans to host their faculty for a collaborative OER mini-conference in February. In the near future, Evans plans to start a personal finance text and make her introductory business OER available online.

Student Engagement

Through it all, she hopes to keep students engaged and involved. Students in some classes are currently creating a 15,000 question test bank that will be used to create practice quizzes for next semester’s students. Other classes are completing detailed edit forms for every chapter. 

Students continue to inform her about what needs to be improved. “This book would never have come about without the hard work contributed by the students in each of my classes over the past five years,” said Evans.

Written by: Becky Gropp