Beginning next week, professors will have more incentive to offer free or low-cost textbooks.
As part of a University of Missouri System initiative on educational resources that are free to access online, the four campuses will be launching an incentive grant program next week. This is intended to encourage faculty members to incorporate more of these resources in their courses.
With the rising cost of college textbooks, UM System President Mun Choi announced the initiative last spring. Scott Curtis, who’s on the system’s Affordable & Open Educational Resources Taskforce, said he hopes the lower costs of textbooks will help students academically.
“The reason for doing this, ultimately, is to make sure students are successful,” Curtis said. “We know the cost of textbooks can be a major obstacle for students. If they have access to that book, they will do better.”
Through this grant program, the four campuses will ask faculty members to consider using free or low-cost resources listed on MU’s Open Educational Resources site as they select books for next semester.
Open educational resources published with open access copyrights, are free for students and can be distributed and used for little to no cost. These free textbooks have always been available for students to use.
However, some system professors didn’t use the technology very much, either because they weren’t aware of it or they were wary of its quality. But many courses are reviewed and revised by faculty at universities across the country.
Instructors can write and add chapters to tailor textbooks to specific courses if material does not fit their curriculum. The material is accessed online, usually as PDFs, and can be revised and updated fairly quickly.
Grant money will be distributed depending on a professor’s time and effort to integrate the open-access material into his or her course curriculum, said Jana Moore, a representative from the UM System’s Office of Academic Affairs. Incentives will range from $1,000 to $10,000, Choi said.
“The greater the savings are for students, the greater the potential grant could be,” Moore said.
Faculty members can apply to adopt materials that already exist, adapt them to their own specific course needs, or create a new resource for students to use.
Carolyn Orbann, an assistant teaching professor for MU’s Department of Health Sciences, has worked with other faculty in her department since the summer to incorporate open educational resources into their spring courses. She feels the grant program is a great way to get the conversation started about how and why teachers should use the technology.
“Textbook affordability has been something that I personally have been interested in for a long time,” Orbann said. “Whenever I have the choice to choose a textbook, I do look up the cost for students and see if it’s expensive and try to look for other alternatives. Once I saw the wealth of material available (online), it was just amazing.”
Orbann is working with another faculty member to transform one of her writing-intensive classes to adopt a pre-existing open access textbook in the spring semester. They have identified two options and are now evaluating them.
“I’m glad I don’t have to worry that I’m being a hardship on a student,” Orbann said.
The grant, funded by the system’s Office of Academic Affairs, will also encourage other activities related to open educational resources, such as reviewing the available materials’ quality, curating additional online or open resources, or applying to help mentor other faculty.
“We don’t have any targets in how many grants we hope to sponsor,” Moore said. “We ideally would be thrilled if all faculty were to be interested in a program like this, but we recognize that faculty has the complete academic freedom to pick and choose materials that serve their students best.”
The launch of this program comes amid a larger national movement to reduce the costs of books. College students spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks, which can represent up to 15 to 20 percent of total debt at graduation, according to a system news release.
The cost of textbooks continues to rise, as does student debt. Between January 1998 and July 2016, college textbook prices increased by 90 percent, while the prices of recreational books fell by more than 35 percent, according to an American Enterprise Institute report.
The most well-known open educational resource program is OpenStax, a nonprofit initiative at Rice University funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It contains almost 40 peer-edited textbooks available for free in a variety of subjects, ranging from college algebra to physics to history. The University of Minnesota also offers an open textbook library for anyone to download and use for free.
Along with making resources free to students, the UM System uses AutoAccess, a collaborative program between The Mizzou Store, faculty and publishers that provides required materials at a reduced cost. More than 240 courses across the four campuses use AutoAccess textbooks, saving students about $5 million annually.
To ensure these affordability efforts continue, the system created the Affordable & Open Educational Resources Taskforce for each campus. The task forces will be working closely with committees on each campus to inform students and faculty about the available options to reduce the cost of higher education.
Grace Atkins, the co-chair for MU’s task force, said her goal for the grant program is to make sure that all faculty is aware of MU’s Open Educational Resources site. She hopes that all members review their options before selecting future course materials.
“We talk about money, and money is so important, but what this really comes down to is equity and accessibility,” Atkins said. “The students who can afford to get their textbooks are going to do better, and this is going to level the playing field. This is going to help with retention and academic success. The money is important, but look at the end result.”
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