The global coronavirus pandemic has caused a series of unforeseen challenges for universities and colleges throughout the spring and summer of 2020. In late March, the developing response to the spread of COVID-19 forced campuses around the world to close their buildings and swiftly transition to online teaching. But for all of its urgency, the coronavirus pandemic is not the only crisis sweeping through academia.
College textbook affordability has been a persistent and growing problem for decades. According to the American Enterprise Institute, textbook and course material costs have increased more than 800% since the late 1970s – far outpacing inflation, housing and medical costs – to become the most inflated consumer product in the United States.
Building on a long history of innovative open access advocacy, KU Libraries have actively combatted the far-reaching affordability problem by partnering with faculty on campus to adopt, adapt or create open educational resources (OER) for use in courses.
“KU has been a leader in the movement towards more open scholarship for more than a decade,” said Kevin L. Smith, dean of libraries. “Open textbooks, as well as other open educational resources, are a logical extension of the long-standing commitment.”
So, when KU faculty were faced with the daunting task of quickly moving in-person classes to an online platform, some instructors immediately identified an ace up their sleeve that they could use to their advantage: OER.
“Our transition to online teaching in the spring was pretty seamless, and a lot of that has to do with our OER,” said Peter Bobkowski, professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications. “One of the great things about an OER is that we can edit it anytime, without waiting for a publisher’s approval. This flexibility is invaluable, especially amidst the uncertainty we are all facing.”
Bobkowski created an OER for use in JOUR 302: Infomania and Beyond. “Be Credible: Information Literacy for Journalism, Public Relations, Advertising and Marketing Students” was co-written with Karna Younger, faculty engagement librarian, and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Since the implementation of “Be Credible” in fall 2018, the OER has been used by nearly 1,350 KU students who have saved an estimated $135,000.
Faculty are looking ahead to an ambiguous future – planning for hybrid, online or in-person classes.
“As instructors plan, having a reliable and accessible online format guarantees that students – domestic or international – are able to participate,” said Meggie Mapes, introductory course director, communication studies. “Because the book is free, open source material can alleviate the financial strain of expensive textbooks at a time of heightened economic unrest.”
Mapes created an OER for Communication Studies 130/131: Audience Speaker Communication. “Speak Out, Call In: Public Speaking as Advocacy,” is a contemporary, interdisciplinary public speaking textbook that fuses rhetoric, critical/cultural studies and performance to offer a modern resource for students. Mapes’ OER has since been adopted by more than 10 universities and colleges—allowing thousands of students across the nation to access this free resource.
“OER plays a fundamental role in the ‘easy access’ piece of the fall puzzle,” said Drew Vartia, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Chemistry. “With free, open resources, students aren't spending their time and effort figuring out special registration instructions or worrying about where the money for course materials will come from.”
Vartia adopted “Chemistry: Atoms First,” an OER from OpenStax, for CHEM 150: Chemistry for Engineers. With nearly 300 students enrolling in each semester of Vartia’s CHEM 150 courses, the impact on KU students is truly significant.
With many services and resources shifting to incorporate digital aspects, OER will be more prevalent now than ever. Fortunately for instructors and faculty at KU, the libraries are at the ready to help.
“KU Libraries are grateful and excited to partner with such dedicated instructors to create opportunities to save students money and to introduce a new level of pedagogical flexibility,” Smith said.
Through the OER Grant Initiative — consisting of contributions from the Office of Scholarly Communication & Copyright and private gifts from KU Libraries’ Parents’ Campaign — KU Libraries have distributed nearly $89,000 to 26 projects across disciplines and departments at the university, saving KU students an estimated $1 million annually.
“While it's incredibly easy to start on your own, librarians are the folks who can show you the full OER landscape,” Vartia said. “In addition to online textbooks, OER include freely available and often peer-reviewed case studies, experiments, projects and more. Because there's so much to explore, it's an expert librarian who can direct you to the resources that fit your discipline, saving you valuable time.”
In addition to OER support, KU Libraries’ David Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication & Copyright educates and supports KU faculty, staff and students on how to share their scholarly work and educational resources using complementary online tools like KU ScholarWorks.
“I think faculty would find library support useful in understanding how and why we could open-source our own lectures or activities,” Mapes said. “While faculty are becoming more aware of open textbooks, increasing awareness about other resources, including assignments, concept videos or tutorials that are openly sourced, would be useful as faculty plan for an uncertain road ahead.”
Bobkowski, Mapes and Vartia have all been recognized by KU Libraries as Textbook Heroes, members of the KU community who've taken extraordinary initiative to increase access to and affordability of required course materials by implementing and advocating for OER and other low- and no-cost course materials.
As course transitions amid the pandemic demand new instructional strategies, KU Libraries remain active in supporting faculty in making the shift to OER—for their benefit, and for the benefit of all students at the university.