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Rutgers, NJIT neutralizing sticker shock with textbook alternatives

Sarah Allred, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, was an early adopter of the Open and Affordable Textbooks Program.- (SARAH ALLRED)-(SARAH ALLRED)

Students at Rutgers University spend an average of $1,500 annually just on their course materials, according to data from the independent New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

That prompted the creation of the Open and Affordable Textbooks Program, through which the Rutgers University Library System awards grants to campus faculty members to cover the costs of textbooks for students.

The program, Rutgers said, has assisted more than 11,000 students on its three campuses and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, saving them $2.1 million since 2016.

Krisellen Maloney, vice president for information services and university librarian at Rutgers, launched the OAT initiative.

“Rutgers President Robert Barchi said he wanted it to happen,” Maloney said. “ … The rollout went much better than I expected. We had more submissions than we could fund.”

The OAT committee is comprised of faculty members and students. A faculty member submits a proposal to the grant committee, which looks at the cost of the textbook and the number of students in the course as a basis for approving or rejecting a grant application.

“The idea is more about finding a low-cost alternative to a textbook,” Maloney said. “A lot of students want online materials. A textbook can cost a few hundred dollars. This is typically not costing students to use the online materials.”

Sarah Allred, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers’ Camden campus, said she applied for the grant for her class and received approval. She said she became interested in the program after hearing a presentation from David Ernst, chief information officer in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.

“I knew textbooks are expensive and people are used to using textbooks from standard publishers,” Allred said. “At that point I committed to making an effort to using the low- or reduced-cost textbooks. It really was shocking to see how easy it is. There are a number of websites that link to textbooks that have been funded through grants. The publishers are paid through grants. For a lot of basic intro courses, there are professional textbooks that you can use for free.”

Allred provides her students with electronic versions of textbooks and suggestions for low-cost printing services. Many students don’t buy textbooks anyway, she said, because they can’t afford them.

“With online textbooks, they share,” Allred said. “I know they have access to the resources. That has changed the types of things I am able to do in class. I applaud Rutgers for doing this. There is no need to add an extra financial burden to students. I want to give a shout-out to the Rutgers librarians.”

Rutgers-Camden student Jordan Bergman said she didn’t know about the OAT program when she signed up for the class Spanish for the Health Professions 2. That turned out to be an unexpected benefit in taking the course.

“We have more time in class to speak openly and freely,” said Bergman, a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in childhood studies. “It is much cheaper not spending money on the book. [Our professor] engages the students more.”

Bergman prefers to use the program because she gets the same class material in digital form and saves money. 

Other institutions are also taking steps to lessen the financial burden on their students. Faculty at the New Jersey Institute of Technology use open educational resources to complement traditional resources such as textbooks, said Ann Hoang, NJIT’s university librarian.

Open educational resources are freely accessible, openly licensed text, media and other digital assets that can be used for teaching, learning and research purposes. 

“Other faculty have made a conscious decision to use high-quality OER instead of a traditional textbook,” she said. “In some cases, this decision has been made to save students money by not requiring the purchase of a textbook. In other cases, the subject matter is evolving so quickly that there simply is not a good textbook.” 

Blake Haggerty, executive director of digital learning and technology in the Office of Digital Learning at NJIT, said the school decided to develop its initiative in 2017 to address students’ growing concerns about textbook costs.

The initiative encourages faculty to redesign their courses by using low-cost, high-quality OER content in lieu of expensive textbooks. It has generated savings for students of more than $413,000 in its second year, he said.

“[Having] open educational resources are more than having free materials,” Haggerty said. “Open means that anyone using the content has permission to freely download, make changes and share that content to better serve students. It is important to understand that making course materials free is the beginning; making them open creates a lot more possibilities.”

NJIT faculty had been creating mixed course content and offering it for public use even before the OER movement started, Hoang said.

“As technology has evolved, it has become easier for educators to create and share OERs,” Hoang said. “If there are high-quality OERs that can help students, it is only natural the faculty will share those resources with students. The flip side to that is if materials do not exist, many faculty will create their own resources to help students.”

NJIT faculty are using OER as an alternative to getting students more involved and a way to collaborate with them on content creation, she said. The process brings students into a larger context of learning and sharing knowledge beyond the classrooms, she said.

“OER ideally can improve student learning by making the course materials available to all students from Day One,” Hoang said. “OER provides the ability to mix and match course content as faculty see fit.”

One drawback to using OER, she added, is it takes time to find and vet materials. And, OER may not be as available depending upon the discipline and, as of now, there is no comprehensive catalog of OER content, she said.

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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