American University is latest to shift toward OER to make college more affordable


Aiming to reduce the cost burden of textbooks on its students and move toward more adaptable curriculum content, American University in Washington, D.C., has become the latest to join the Open Textbook Network, a hub for open educational resources, or OER. The resulting benefits to students, faculty members say, can hardly be understated.

Undergraduates typically spend about $1,230 annually on college textbooks, according to College Board statistics, leading many to opt out of buying the books or even take fewer classes. But the network offers free, openly licensed textbooks — one way college can become more affordable.

Max Paul Friedman, a professor of history at American University, said students should not have to bear the financial burden of textbooks along with the already-exorbitant cost of college, not to mention living expenses in a costly city like Washington. Annual tuition and room and board at American run up to $59,379 annually, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“A nonstudent might think, ‘Come on, buying a few books, what’s the big deal?'” Friedman said in an interview with EdScoop. “But many students really are living right at the edge of their resources. They are painfully aware of their debt, and often when they can get grants or loans, many … don’t cover costs of textbooks.”

Friedman, who teaches a course with a focus on social movements throughout history, said he tailors the openly licensed material for students so that they can focus on the information that is pertinent to his class — an added perk of moving to OER.

“Because it’s open and it can be amended, it’s much more flexible and can wind up working better,” said Friedman, who has been teaching at American for a decade. “We’re free from designing our course around the textbook’s contents. We can design the contents around the course.”

The Open Textbook Network, which launched in 2014, currently offers 425 books from various publishers to its 600 member institutions. These textbooks all have been peer reviewed by university faculty and are accessible online, through students’ course management systems or through PDF documents. American University professors can upload the virtual books onto Blackboard.

“It’s simply a file, and they can just put a link on their Blackboard site and link out to wherever the book is on the internet, and then students can just download it for free. Or the
instructors will download it and upload it to their [course management system],” David Ernst, executive director of Open Textbook Network, said in an interview. “There’s nothing too complicated about it.”

Ernst, who led a workshop Sept. 28 at American University in Washington, D.C., added that the growing demand from institutions, including both universities and statewide organizations, is “driven a lot by cost.”

“Cost really impacts student success, and faculty see it every day in their students who show up without a book or because they couldn’t afford it or try to get by without it,” he said. “It’s frustrating for everybody and it’s an access issue, an academic success issue and a social justice issue.”

The virtual textbooks available through the Open Textbook Network also offer online quizzes, instructional modules, discussion questions, articles, interactive simulations and image, video and audio files.

This is not American’s first encounter with OER: The university in 2015 launched “Open American,” a program that encourages faculty to adopt openly licensed materials. According to university officials, 17 professors have saved more than 1,500 students an estimated $250,000 in textbook costs through the program.

Other OER initiatives in higher education have found similar success. Last year, Rhode Island’s governor announced an effort to save college students $5 million in five years by promoting openly licensed materials. At its one-year mark, the initiative had helped students in the state save almost $900,000.

“American University is committed to improving access, affordability and academic success for students,” said Jill Klein, interim executive director of AU’s Center for Teaching, Research and Learning. “Joining forces with institutions across the country through the Open Textbook Network scales up AU’s ongoing efforts to help faculty members make the switch to using quality, free textbooks and other instructional materials in their courses.”

Ernst said his visits to college campuses around the country are becoming more frequent as interest and demand for OER increase. In the past few weeks, since the fall semester began, he visited the University of Maryland and Clemson University along with American University.

“Faculty are very receptive,” he said. “It’s always a very positive
conversation, and actually, what we have found as we’ve run these
workshops is that 45 percent of faculty say they’re going to adopt
an open textbook. And those who don’t, it’s generally because they haven’t quite found
the right one that fits what they need.”

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