It’s no secret on college campuses and elsewhere that textbooks are expensive.

At Front Range Community College, some math, economics, and biology faculty members, among others, are doing something about it.

Ever heard of OER?

OER stands for Open Education Resources. It also stands for “free textbooks” – or nearly so.

As Kenneth Monks, FRCC math faculty, says, “OER are free texts with an open license, a much less restrictive copyright than a traditional ‘All Rights Reserved.’ They allow for some amount of modifying and remixing by users. The OER movement was based on the open software movement and GNU Project’s General Public License.”

One Reason Textbooks are Expensive

If you go online or to a bookstore, you, the consumer, can decide whether the price of a book is worth your money. The education marketplace doesn’t work that way.

Three Campuses, Three Disciplines

Jaren Seid and Niroj Bhattarai of the economics faculty at the Larimer Campus have been using OER since 2013 for Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics.

Ann Riedl, biology faculty at the Westminster Campus, adopted an OER book about three years ago for General College Biology and has been improving on it since. It’s free online, and students can buy a copy at the campus store for $12.50.

Ken, from the Boulder County Campus wrote two Calculus textbooks (Calculus 2 came first, followed by Calculus 1) under OER standards. Jenna Allen of the University of Colorado-Boulder illustrated the books.

Early Results are More Than Promising.

Niroj and Jaren wanted to know how their students fared. So, like the economics professors they are, they built a dataset of student outcomes using 11 semesters of data, 111 course sections, totaling 2,428 observations.

They used a statistical method called a regression adjustment process to compare outcomes, measured by final course grades, for two cohorts of students – those who used paid resources and those who used OER.

Jaren reports: “Our results found no statistically significant difference between student grades for those using OER as compared to paid resources. The results were consistent for students enrolled in either course and for the both courses as a whole. The implication of these results suggest that the negative impacts of higher textbook costs on students can be avoided by using OER without any adverse effect on student final course grades.”

About 200 students in fall 2017 biology classes responded to a survey:

  • 63.3 percent agreed or strongly agreed: “The textbook for this course was a valuable resource.” (13.8 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed)
  • 69.3 percent agreed or strongly agreed: “The textbook for this course was a good value for the money.” (11.5 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed)
  • 64.1 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed: “I would rather pay more money to get a higher quality textbook.” (12.8 percent agreed or strongly agreed)
  • 61.1 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “I had more confidence in the relevance of the textbook since it was written/revised by FRCC faculty.” (4.7 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed)

Ann also senses the use of the OER text contributes to students having higher pass rates, doing better in future science courses, and even graduating at a much higher rate.

Ken’s data are promising. The pass rate for Ken’s Calculus 2 class the two semesters before, using standard textbooks, was 85.7 percent. The pass rate in the two semesters after with OER use: 83.1 percent. Basically the same, to my way of thinking.

And the Savings!

In Economics, students over the four-year period with OER collectively have saved $128,000!

In biology, about 1,680 students in 70 sections have saved about $235,000. Going forward, Ann estimates savings of about $100,000 per year for biology students from OER textbooks.

For math students, Ken says, “Assuming every Calc 1 and Calc 2 student would have bought a brand new copy of the previous text, and instead purchased the $20 OER copy at the bookstore, sold for printing cost, collectively the students would have saved $22,230.”

Meanwhile, in Congress…

H.R. 3480, the Affordable College Textbook Act that U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced in 2017, remains in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He said the omnibus education bill that passed the House in September contains $5 million to expand access to open-source textbooks.

The Future

Jaren and Niroj report that faculty in Sociology, Psychology, and Political Science are incorporating OER usage. They also are working on having their results published.

At the Boulder County Campus, work is not done in math. Ken and colleagues are creating an online homework platform using MyOpenMath, an OER replacement. The platform will follow the Calculus texts, section by section.

Similarly, Ann has designed an online homework system, using SoftChalk, to replace the material that accompanies textbooks.

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