CEDAR CITY — Recognizing that traditional methods and high-priced textbooks pose a significant barrier for student success, Southern Utah University is working to make learning more affordable and accessible through open education, a concept aimed at sharing resources, tools and practices to improve educational access and effectiveness.
Textbooks play a big part in the cost of higher education. Students pay an average of $1,200 per year on books, and expense that’s usually paid directly out-of-pocket, not with scholarships or financial aid. The cost for textbooks has risen 90 percent in 18 years. The Consumer Price Index for textbooks has increased at a higher rate than that of new home prices and medical care.
The high cost of books has forced many students to reconsider purchasing the materials, even if it meant that going without the textbook could hurt their grades.
“SUU has done something that I think is really impressive,” Richard Saunders, the school’s dean of library services, said. “We’ve put together a four-year initiative to systematically go through the General Education courses. We’re looking course-by-course to see what commercial texts we can replace with an open text.”
Open education resources materials include any type of educational materials that exist in the public domain or have been released under an open license that allows them to be used and redistributed with no access costs.
SUU hired one of the state’s first open education resource librarians, Rosalyn Liljenquist, to promote and expand the use of open education resources and serve as a curator.
To pursue the university’s goals of building a repository of quality open resources, Liljenquist assists professors as they adopt materials that are tailored to their needs.
While many open education resources are available for nearly every field of study, gaps do exist. Liljenquist said that while there may be an abundance of beginning algebra texts, there are fewer options for specialized, upper-division courses.
“I have gone without buying or renting a textbook mainly for my science classes because I couldn’t afford it,” SUU student Veronica Rico said. “I either took a picture of the book or went to the library to see if they have a book that I could check out.”
Roger Gold, associate professor of biology at SUU, had a small group of students create their own open resource materials during his microbiology summer course. Gold split students into groups and had every group construct an informational website.
His goal was to give students an opportunity to gain valuable experience with real-world applications and a deeper understanding of the concepts of microbiology. Rico was one of Gold’s students and said she felt that creating open education resources was more engaging than sitting in a class where a professor is merely reading slides.
“Overall, it helped me a lot, and it changed my view on microbiology,” Rico said.
Gold plans to keep the student-created “wiki” for his other students to use as a study guide. He also taught two biology courses this fall: one using his traditional lecture and textbook, the other mirroring his summer course where students created their own open education resources materials. He will review and compare the performance of both groups.
Liljenquist will compile similar data for the university as it examines the effectiveness of open education resources in a multi-year, cross-curriculum study.
Andrew Misseldine, assistant professor of mathematics at SUU, published a case study comparing students who used open education resources for their textbooks with students who used traditional textbooks. The study found that both groups did well academically, but the class that used an open education resources textbook had fewer students drop the course.
“This follows the national trend that adopting (open education resources) materials seems to be helping students persevere in the class,” Misseldine said. “Disenfranchised students end up staying in the class, and probably passing the class where they may otherwise have dropped out because of money or other personal reasons that (open education resources) helps remedy.”
As students and faculty see the benefits of open education resources, SUU will continue to redesign and rethink its approach to education in order to meet their mutual and distinctive needs.
“SUU has a substantive role to play in improving student retention,” Saunders said. “This year the library faculty will work with the Center of Excellence for Teaching and Learning to encourage (open education resources) adoption by helping faculty select and adopt these materials.”
For their part, SUU students are thankful for the adoption of open education resources use and are looking forward to a wider application on campus.
“I’ve always appreciated my professors who take the time to provide (open education resources) materials for their courses,” Miles Anderson, a senior political science and psychology major, said. “It really shows that they care about their students and are aware of the financial burden many students carry. Eric Kirby and Edrick Overson are both professors I have this semester who are using strictly (open education resources) materials. I hope other professors follow their example as they see that it can be done without sacrificing the quality of the course.”
“Faculty can adapt (open education resources) for their courses however they choose,” Liljenquist said. “That is the beauty of the Creative Commons License. They can piece together sections from different texts or lesson plans, add videos straight to Canvas, download and rewrite whole portions to fit the needs of the course. There really is no limit to what they can create with (open education resources).”