Thanks to a free open access textbook, hundreds of students taking the First-Year Seminar in the College of Liberal (COLA 100) collectively saved about $36,000 in fees last fall.
Liberal Arts piloted the use of the textbook in the fall semester after teaming up with the Open Educational Resources Task Force, a partnership among the office of information technology, office of online education, Faculty Center, University Libraries, and the UNLV Bookstore. The task force’s mission is to improve student accessibility and combat the rising cost of textbooks through the use of free or low-cost resources.
“It was really exciting to find a textbook that met all of our needs. Nationwide we’ve become more concerned with the cost of textbooks and that being a real obstacle for our students,” said Denise Tillery, associate dean for students in Liberal Arts and a professor of English.
“Every semester there are always students who can’t get the textbook until their financial aid comes in or, even then, they can’t afford it. They’re looking high and low for used versions or using a different edition because it’s cheaper.”
Liberal Arts used the book with 375 students in 15 sections of the seminar, replacing the previous textbook, which cost more than $80 per student. Students could download, print, and take notes in the free digital textbook or order a hard copy from the UNLV Bookstore for a nominal fee.
Liberal Arts faculty chose the College Success book, offered through online teaching and learning platform OpenStax, because of its robust content and ease of use, they said. Instructors simply added the book link to the Canvas course shell and made it available to students. OpenStax offers many pedagogical resources such as tests, quizzes, and Powerpoints as well as supplemental materials for faculty.
“It was the best of both worlds. It had everything we needed to plug and play, but it also had good content,” said Jenna Heath, the college's director of student and community engagement, who helped coordinate the effort.
“Part of our goal was to standardize the content for the faculty so all the COLA 100 classes are getting access to the same information. This platform allowed us to check all those boxes.”
Meeting the Need
Tillery, who has coordinated the seminars for three years, said First-Year Seminar students had mentioned on class evaluations that the previous textbook was too expensive.
She knew free resources for the college success class – covering strategies such as time and money management, major exploration, and notetaking – were plentiful. “It was always on my list of things to do – look for some open access materials that we didn’t have to pay for.”
Open educational resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium, including digital, that are available in the public domain. The materials have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation, and redistribution by others with limited restrictions.
Tillery and Heath were among a group of faculty that participated in the university’s OER Task Force’s learning group, launched in 2021. The multidisciplinary learning group’s goal is to work with faculty to convert courses with expensive textbooks to the use of free resources for students.
“We know that plenty of students delay purchasing their textbooks due to the cost," said Melissa Bowles-Terry, director of the UNLV Faculty Center and a task force member. "If we had more courses that relied primarily on open resources, students wouldn't have that barrier to learning presented by an expensive textbook. It's an issue of equity and access to education."
The average cost of books and supplies for undergraduate students attending UNLV for 15 hours per semester for 2021-22 is $1,240. Those costs can dramatically increase depending on the student’s academic program and textbook requirements.
The OER Task Force initiative addressed an urgent student need and the desire of many faculty members to further use free, online resources, and also offered faculty more flexibility in developing their own course curriculum.
“Textbooks get out of date so quickly, and sometimes they don't cover exactly what an instructor wants. If an instructor decides to create their own online textbook, you can update it and customize it to your exact course content,” said Bowles-Terry.
Like Tillery and Heath, Ed Jorgensen, an assistant professor in computer science in the College of Engineering, also participated in OER’s learning group. He is working with a team of computer sciences faculty, including Jorge Fonseca Cacho, Jimi Andro-Vasko, and Dolly Jorgensen to develop their own online textbook based on the group's teaching experience. This will help ensure the text meets the needs and is available to students for free.
“When you adopt an online textbook, or compile your own set of texts from Libraries resources, you can easily make changes and be flexible with your content. You can also feel good about saving students money and making their educational funds go further towards a degree,” said Bowles-Terry.
Following the Trend
Using open educational resources to increase affordability is a national trend, Tillery said. The university had planned to expand OER use but the pandemic both pushed back and underscored the need. Efforts crystallized earlier this year when the OER Task Force invited faculty across campus to search for and begin implementing more open educational resources. The task force offered mini-grants to provide incentives.
In addition to faculty from Liberal Arts and computer science, professors from environmental and occupational health are participating in the learning group. As part of their work, the faculty members work in teams of two to four members that explore resources and options. The task force offered a series of developmental workshops to kick-start the effort.
While other teams planned to work on the project for about a year, Liberal Arts faculty, including task force members Homer Sims and Jeremy Bowling, jumped in feet first to pilot the effort this fall.
“We were very ambitious, and we did it. I felt pretty motivated because I know students are struggling because of the pandemic,” Tillery said. “We wanted to do what we could to make it a little more accessible for our students. To save them all more than $80 apiece felt like a worthwhile thing to do.”
Students will experience annual savings as the book’s use is expanded to spring sections of COLA 100 and hopefully to other First-Year Seminars at UNLV, Heath said.
Student need motivated Liberal Arts to lead the way on the initiative, she added. “Our college is very aware of what our students are going through. It was simple to go first because we saw the value we could provide to students. We’re also grateful that we work with such a great group of faculty that are eager and willing to help.”
Supporting students is a primary driving force behind the learning group.
“In the long-run, students save on textbooks this way, but they also save on the stress that comes along with a new semester as they wait to get their financial aid packages,” Bowles-Terry added.
Liberal Arts faculty conducted a survey to gather feedback on using the open access textbook, Heath said.
“It will be critical to hear how they used the textbook in the course, what worked for COLA 100 and, of course, ultimately what worked for our students. We’ll probably ask the students one or two questions about their experiences with the textbook, too.”
Then they will pass along outcomes and best practices to the OER task force, give access to Canvas comments and course syllabi, and look ahead to expanding efforts.
Other OER projects are also in the works to roll out in other units. And the OER Task force is continuing its work encouraging faculty to make the transition to open educational resources.
Bowles-Terry recommends faculty check out the great resources at OpenStax (Rice University) or Open Textbook Library (University of Minnesota) to see if there's already an open textbook out in these curated online libraries that might meet their needs. Additional OER resources can be found on the UNLV Libraries website.
Interested in using OERs in your class?
Email the Faculty Center to be paired up with a campus early-adopter who is already using an open textbook and learn how to get started.