Max. Classroom Capacity: Hath Thy Toil O’er Textbooks Consumed the Midnight Oil…?
Loren J. Naidoo, Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
At the beginning of each semester for most of my “professing” career I have had what is likely to be a familiar conversation for many of you. These conversations generally hit one of more of the following notes:
“Hey prof! Great first class. Can I buy an older version of the textbook? The new one is almost $200.”
- “Hey prof! Is there an online version of the textbook? By the way [student frowns], you sure are energetic for 9 AM…”
- “Hey prof! Do you put the textbook on reserve at the library? I can’t afford to buy it. By the way, I heard your class was good but your ratemyprofessors ratings are all over the place…”
- ·“Hey prof! What’s the deal with all of the pop quizzes? I hate pop quizzes. Anyway, I downloaded a free pdf of the textbook from this sketchy website—if anybody wants it, let me know…
I’ve never written a textbook, but I respect my colleagues’ right to sell their work. For most of the undergraduate classes that I’ve taught, I’ve been able to find textbooks that I think are fantastic. I always did what I could (legally!) to help students in need to gain access to required textbooks for my classes (e.g., by loaning out my own copies to students, putting a copy on reserve at the library, etc.). I also tended to stay with the same textbooks over the years (e.g., I’ve used Franzoi’s excellent social psychology text for over 15 years) so that students could sell their used copies at the end of the semester—that is, until the dreaded “next edition” arrived. For a long time I didn’t seriously consider not using textbooks because (a) like most people I’m a person of habit, and it is hard work to significantly redesign a course; and (b) I like the texts that I use, and I think they benefit student learning. However, like many of you who have been teaching for that long or longer, I’ve seen print textbook prices skyrocket in the last few years.
Although it’s easy to dismiss students’ complaints and reluctance to buy textbooks as poor judgment about the value of their education, there are many reasons to take their concerns seriously. First, tuition and other costs associated with attending higher education in the US have increased in the last few decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2005 and 2015 college and university costs (tuition, fees, and room and board) increased by 33% for public institutions and 26% for private nonprofit institutions, adjusted for inflation. Costs for private for-profit institutions actually decreased by 18%, though they remain higher than those at public institutions. Unfortunately, student financial aid has not kept pace with rising costs. For example, the average cost of attending a public 4-year university was $18,632 per year in 2014-15, far greater than the average amount of financial aid from federal ($4,700), state/local ($3,867), or institutional ($5,686) grants. On the other hand, loans among these students were $6,743 per year, on average. The Institute for College Access & Success reported that 68% of students who graduated in 2015 had student loan debt, to the tune of $30,100 per borrower, on average. They noted that this figure is likely to be an underestimation given that they relied on institutional self-reports for these data. According to the Federal Reserve, student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt at $1.4 trillion and has risen steadily over the last 30 years. We are at a point where there is a legitimate debate taking place about the value of higher education. Although there’s reason to believe that an undergraduate education remains a solid investment, the barrier posed by increasing costs and debt burden is likely to have the greatest impact on the low-income students who stand to benefit the most from pursuing a college degree.
Although textbook costs are a small piece of the puzzle (e.g., about $1,200 per year on average), they nonetheless significantly impact many students. For example, a 2014 U.S. PIRG Education Fund survey found that two out of three college students chose not to buy a required textbook due to its high price, almost all of whom believed that they suffered academically as a result. Importantly, textbook costs are among the only educational costs that faculty have considerable leeway in determining.
Textbook publishers have shifted in response to rising costs and developed several alternatives to print textbooks. They have, for example, provided more options to customize their products to reduce costs, such as adding or deleting chapters from a text, printing in softcover or loose-leaf formats, and textbook rentals. More significantly, many textbook publishers have pivoted towards so called “e-textbooks” or “online learning platforms” in which textbook material is presented in online, often along with supplementary materials and functionality such as video clips, discussion boards, practice exercises, assessment (e.g., test bank and test delivery), and grading. The sophistication of some of these systems is impressive, and many have very useful features. However, there is a cost that students generally bear that, in my experience, tends to be less than that of typical print textbooks but is not insignificant.
Another option is not to use for-purchase textbooks at all. This is not a new idea, as those of you who, for example, have developed cost-free “course packs” can attest. However, I would like to talk about this and similar options in the context of the movement toward Open Educational Resources (OER).
The OER movement is rooted in the principle that access to a high-quality education is a universal human right, and the costs associated with educational materials represent a significant barrier to obtaining this right. In part the idea is to encourage the use of educational resources that are either in the public domain or have an open license, resulting in a cost-free class for students for ease of access purposes. However, another important goal is to encourage participation in and cocreation of educational resources by instructors. A review of the empirical research by Hilton (2016) suggests that classes that use OER are at least as effective as those that use commercial textbooks. Many universities are taking note of OER and starting to develop resources to help instructors shift towards a cost-free model of instructional materials.
I recently converted one of my courses to OER. I’d like to share my experiences and describe how I approached things. The course, The Psychology of Motivation and Learning, was one for which I had great difficulty finding a textbook that I was satisfied with. In addition, I was simultaneously in the process of redesigning the course for fully online delivery. I also received support from my university in the form of a small internal OER grant. These facts certainly made me that much more open to shifting to OER. However, having gone through the process once and seen the benefits, I am now much more open to moving other courses to OER.
To start, it’s important to note that OER materials are not restricted to textbooks. They come in a variety of forms including curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, videos, and animation. The general idea is that they are free to use for educational purposes, but there are different forms of copyright that are nicely summarized here: tlinnovations.cikeys.com/digital-copyright/. For my course, I started by rethinking which topics I wanted to address and in what order. Instructors often base these decisions on the textbook they use, and it can be quite liberating to be free of this constraint! I started with the assumption that I would have a required reading associated with each topic. I would consider short videos for some topics as well. Next, for each topic I considered what I wanted to achieve with the reading. Did I want to provide students with more theoretical depth than I could deliver in class meetings? Did I want students to read primary empirical research articles to get into the weeds and understand where relevant findings come from? Did I want them to read an article from the popular press to understand applications of theories or research?
I first identified two textbook chapters that would be ideal readings to build theoretical depth around several topics. Small portions of existing works (e.g., textbooks) can be reproduced within fair use guidelines, though what constitutes a small portion is difficult to know. I consulted with my library (a key resource!) to make sure that using these chapters would not violate copyright. For several other topics, I found empirical journal articles. For the remainder, I looked for resources online. There are lots of resources to be found, many of which are NOT suited to teaching psychology, management, or specific areas within these realms. It can be time consuming to navigate through all of the dead ends. I can suggest a few sites that you may find helpful. The first is SIOP’s teaching wiki (siopwiki.wikifoundry.com/). Here you will find syllabi for I-O classes, exercises, assignments, video clips, case studies, and readings. Another is the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT II; www.merlot.org). MERLOT II is the California State University System’s searchable collection of online textbooks and other open-access materials. Third, the NOBA project (www.nobaproject.com) is an excellent collection of open-access psychology resources created by social psychologist Ed Diener.
After perusing these websites, I looked for articles from the popular press (e.g., recent articles from theatlantic.com), and videos relevant to course topics. For a couple of other topics, I decided to have students choose their own readings, consistent with the OER goal or getting students engaged in the development of educational materials. I submitted pdf versions of all of the assigned readings to my library’s e-reserve department. To the extent that there were copyright costs associated with the use of the journal articles, the library would bear these costs, not the students. Again, consulting with your library is key! The final step was that in my syllabus under the heading “Required Textbooks” I wrote, with gusto: “None! This is an OER (open educational resources) class, which means that you are not required to spend a dime on books or other such expenses.”
Besides the financial benefits to students, converting a course to OER is a great excuse to rethink your assumptions and educational goals for a course. Before, I felt locked into using the best available textbook, which I never much liked. Many of the chapters went into great detail on areas I didn’t think were particularly important, and much of what I wanted to talk about wasn’t in the text. But in requiring students to buy the textbook, I felt obligated to assign readings, even if they weren’t terribly relevant. By dropping the textbook I assigned a greater diversity of readings, and in particular, more readings which emphasized real world application. For example, rather than assigning a textbook chapter on physiological arousal and performance, I went into more depth on the theories and research during class time, and assigned an article from The Atlantic on how Olympians stay motivated. This provided students an opportunity to apply motivational theories to a real context. Students seem to appreciate the diversity of voices and perspectives in the reading assignments.
One final note. Some of you have written, are writing, or are considering writing a textbook. You might think that the OER movement is hostile to this activity. However, rather than writing a textbook with a publisher, you might consider publishing an open access textbook. Yes, by doing so you would forego the royalties. However, publishing a textbook as an OER compensates faculty in the familiar common academic currency of scholarly impact. A well-written OER textbook has few barriers to widespread adoption.
As always, I eagerly await your comments, questions and feedback!
Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: A review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64, 573-590.