Wednesday, February 25, 2015


OER as Retention Initiative

What happens when students put off buying textbooks?

Any seasoned instructor knows.  They fall behind academically.  What starts as a mostly economic issue quickly becomes an academic issue.  Then, when they fail or withdraw, they may lose financial aid eligibility for failing to maintain “satisfactory academic progress,” and the small financial issue that become a large academic issue becomes a larger financial issue.  The snowball keeps rolling.

It doesn’t have to.  What if textbooks were free?

“Free community college” would require major legal and financial changes, as well as some unusually farsighted political leadership.  Free textbooks just require a little ingenuity.  We can do this.

Open Educational Resources are free (or nearly free) alternatives to commercially produced instructional materials, such as textbooks or lab manuals.  They’re often supported with foundation funding, with the goal of reducing economic barriers for students.  Typically they’re in electronic form, though sometimes it’s possible to get hardcopy versions for only the cost of printing.  

OER come in several flavors.  My favorites are the ones that constantly update in a sort of crowdsourced, iterative process.  Paper textbooks are stuck with the errors that were there when they went to press.  Yes, they can do ‘errata’ sheets, but those have about as much impact as ‘corrections’ days later in the newspaper.  Electronic resources are much easier to update or correct effectively.  And because they’re born electronic, and with an explicit goal of accessibility, they tend to be accessible to students with disabilities from the outset.  Accessible design beats retrofitting anytime.

I’ve seen and heard OER presented as a money-saver, and that’s true.  But it rarely comes up in discussions of retention and improving student success.  I think that’s a mistake.

Over the past few years, the quality and range of OER options have improved dramatically.  For introductory level, high-enrollment classes, it’s often possible to find materials that compare favorably
with commercial textbooks.  Given that textbooks often cost $200 apiece or more, the difference adds up over the course of a degree program.  Tidewater Community College, in Virginia, has established an all-OER degree program in business administration; that tells me it can be done.  

Devices are an issue.  Any electronic resource has to be read on some sort of device.  Most students have phones, but the screens are too small to lend themselves to extended or complicated material.  (Just imagining trying to study a diagram of the nervous system on a phone screen makes me shudder.)  Larger devices work better, but they aren’t cheap.  Amortizing the cost over several semesters makes it better, but for a part-time or visiting student, it may come close to a financial wash.  I’d love to hear from wise and worldly readers at community colleges who have found fair and effective ways around the device question.

Still, I can’t help but think that the device issue is much more solvable than, say, the political opposition to free community college.  And the payoff isn’t merely economic.  Students who have class materials from day one are likelier to succeed academically than students who don’t.  This is an economic issue, but it’s also a retention issue.  And it’s one we can solve without waiting for the political winds to shift.

One of my colleagues wrote a free electronic textbook while on sabbatical, which he now uses for his classes.

I don't think the device issue is such a problem. One can get a decent tablet for around $50-75, which is less than the cost of many textbooks. There's no reason a student would have to have an iPad or similarly expensive brand.

One last idea: There may be good resources from professional organizations/societies related to the course, which the student can use if s/he becomes a member. For example, the required texts for my husband's percussion history/literature class come entirely from the Percussive Arts Society's electronic publications archive, which can be accessed by members (and membership for students is $45 per year; again, less than the typical textbook).
This is an idea which has long since come.

I teach without textbooks but instead use entirely primary literature. I think this is maybe more appropriate for upper division courses than the lower courses (which I don't currently teach) but it's still a shift that a lot of my students are grateful for. For me, it's partly because I can't find a good up-to-date text in the fields I teach but also because one of the skills I want them to learn is to work in the scientific literature.

Of course, in speaking with colleagues, I've learned that my school has far better library resources than many and that may make this a more achievable goal than for instructors at some places (or, admittedly, for some courses).
We're using an OER text in our Introduction to American politics. One of the key issues we're running in to is sustainability. Political science texts to need to be updated with some degree of frequency - you need more current policy examples, election results, etc., but the OER text we're using is already dated (2011). For someone (or someones) who's not getting paid for the text, this can be a lot of work. We're looking to build a distributed maintenance model, whereby people are responsible for one chapter, which seems much more doable than updating a whole text.

Our initial research suggests that ~20% of our students register for fewer classes due to textbook costs at least occasionally, so to the extent when can help them with those costs, I think we may indeed see not just higher retention but decreased time to completion.

The OpenStax Consortium produces superb intro-science textbooks, all free.
Eli is involved in the ChemWiki project which is producing such materials for chemistry. Delmar Larsen @ UC Davis leads the team which is extending into all STEM areas
Someone without a device could save the text to a USB stick and take that to the next copy shop to have it physically printed. That won't break the bank.
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