volume 44, number 4
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Ditch Your Textbook: Moving to OER and Alt-Textbooks
By Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian for Research & Instructional Services

   There’s a phenomenon that happens in the Library each semester during the first week of class. One question will be asked repeatedly by students who approach librarians for assistance: “Does the Library have a copy of my textbook?” We hear this question hundreds of times. It speaks to the effort Temple University students go to in order to acquire their textbooks in the most economical manner possible— free being the most desirable option.
   I am reminded of a personal interaction with a student seeking his textbook for an environmental science course. I found a prior edition, but it was ten years out of date. I gave the student the news, sharing my regret that I was unable to find an edition he could use. To my surprise, the student was unexpectedly overjoyed. He claimed the book would suffice. This speaks volumes about the state of textbook costs. As educators, we may be aghast that a student would settle for a completely out-of-date edition, especially in the sciences, knowing well the negative impact it is likely to have on student learning. Yet, our students, in their pursuit of savings, are glad to accept what should be totally unacceptable.
   This observation mirrors findings from a recent national survey about college textbook costs and use conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Group. The survey of 2,200 students from 150 institutions acknowledges that alternatives such as rental programs have helped, but that 65 percent of students had still opted against buying a book because it was too costly – and 94 percent of them believed their grade would suffer because of it. Another 48 percent of students said the cost of textbooks affected their decisions about course selection. At the same time, 82 percent of students said free online access to a textbook would help them do “significantly better” in a course.


Beyond Our Control? 
   Temple faculty with whom I have spoken share concerns about textbook costs. Few feel comfortable knowing students spend significant sums on top of tuition and fees. There are worries that questionable student practices, such as sharing with other students or simply opting to do without the textbook, detract from learning. Others express guilt about requiring students to purchase a costly textbook, knowing they may cover only a third of the content. These revelations are accompanied by a resignation that textbook publishers are in control and there is little faculty can do. There is something faculty can do. They can choose to take control and ditch the textbook. I know it is possible because our Alternate Textbook Project has allowed 27 faculty across the disciplines to do just that. Each has successfully compiled an alternate set of learning materials to save students money and improve learning.


How to Get Involved
   The Alternate Textbook Project is an annual competitive award program. Faculty submit an application that describes the textbook they are ditching, the resources that will replace it, the anticipated savings from eliminating the commercial textbook, and other details. A team of TLTR2 (Teaching Learning and Technology Roundtable) members reviews the applications. Ten successful applicants receive an award of $1,000 to support their project. Participants submit a project evaluation that summarizes the outcomes. Faculty are not required to author a textbook; most instead develop their alternate textbook using existing open or library licensed content, and that can include chapters from open textbooks or library e-book collections. Faculty can partner with librarians to obtain assistance identifying appropriate content. Full details are found on the official site.


What Faculty Have to Say
   Perhaps the best affirmation of the value of the AlternateTextbook Project comes from past participants. Here are a few excerpts from faculty evaluations of their projects:

I also found it liberating to assign readings myself, instead of having to follow a pre-set textbook. For example, I was free to select recently published or forthcoming articles, as well as emphasize themes that are often ignored or marginalized by texts seeking to maximize coverage.

I found the experience to be quite successful. As an instructor, I found that identifying high quality, accessible free-to-student readings was something of a challenge and more time consuming than selecting traditional textbooks.

I believe that students obtained as much from the set of readings that I put together for this course as students have obtained from traditional texts in other versions of the capstone that I have taught. Students were, on the whole, extremely enthusiastic about the Alternative Textbook Project.
Students who took the course previously indicated that based on conversations with peers who were currently in the course, the alternative textbook, course materials and delivery of the course content were significantly improved.

I suspect that the reason for the large increase in the percentage of students earning A’s, and the concomitant decrease in students earning B’s, C’s and D’s may be attributed to the students’ easy access to texts without cost: in previous years, many students on restricted funding failed to purchase some or all of the required books.


Make a Statement
   Faculty across the country are demonstrating their ability to take control over learning materials. Perhaps this is the time to move to a post-textbook era in which digital learning materials replace the traditional commercial textbook. That said, the AlternateTextbook Project might not be for every course. A traditional textbook may still be optimal, and e-textbooks and rentals may be students’ best options. For those who believe there is an alternative, the Project provides a great opportunity to experiment, while saving students money and improving their engagement with the course content. Please consider the possibilities, and submit an application by April 30. •

For Further Reading: Affordable Textbooks: A Policy Guide