A recent highly interactive forum at Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Hudson Room highlighted an ongoing campus-wide conversation about the impact high-priced textbooks have on student learning. It also helped participants understand more affordable alternatives such as Open Educational Resources, or OER.
OER are learning materials that are available at no cost to faculty and students and can often be modified and redistributed digitally.
Students spend around $1,200 each year on textbooks and supplies, making books one of the biggest out-of-pocket expenses for students according to data from US Public Interest Research Group.
BMCC Assistant Professor and Outreach Librarian Jean Amaral co-organized the meeting with NYPIRG Project Coordinator Armando Chapelliquen.
“I knew we were going to be doing the OER initiative and I saw the NYPIRG table on campus and a little light bulb went off in my head,” said Amaral.
So the two enlisted each other’s resources and the student/faculty meeting was born.
A mix of around 30 faculty and students were present. During the first half, students split into two smaller groups and shared stories of financial struggle buying textbooks. During the second half, each group shared their findings with the other, as well as faculty members and NYPIRG.
Chapelliquen said part of NYPIRG’s motivation for the event was to find out what the concerns are from both students and faculty.
“What might be the most effective way for implementing a program like this CUNY-wide, as well as here at BMCC?”
CUNY’s Office of Libraries and Information Services is working out details for a separate system-wide OER test project.
The burden of high-cost textbooks
With some larger textbook packages priced as high as $200, both groups of students agreed a barrier to the published learning material is cost.
Some students questioned why professors require a latest edition textbook, despite what they say are only minimal changes in its content. Others applauded professors who utilize Blackboard PowerPoint presentations and websites where course materials can be stored and easily accessed.
Finishing up his final BMCC semester, Business Management major Michael Hurtado, who will soon head off to Baruch College, told the group he once paid around $200 for a textbook on entrepreneurship.
“I had to buy it, there was no choice, but it’s a good book that I actually kept,” he told the group.
Hurtado said another student in that class who was paying all her college expenses out of pocket faced a daunting budget challenge and in the end, couldn’t afford the book, impacting her ability to excel in the class.
BMCC pilot program begins this spring
The library, select faculty and some students will have a chance to test classroom OER this spring when the BMCC pilot program officially launches.
Amaral said around 23 faculty members met the application deadline, of which 15 will be selected to participate. The pilot will also feature workshops for additional faculty who might be interested in learning how to incorporate OER into their courses.
In addition to the library, the Center for Excellence in Teaching Learning and Scholarship, or CETLS, is running the pilot. Support for the BMCC program also came from the Office of Academic Affairs.
Concerns over OER
Despite OER’s promise, some faculty members still had questions. For example; will students do the required reading if material gets synthesized onto PowerPoints? How might accreditation be impacted if textbook guidelines are tampered with? Should we be concerned that some studies show retention levels are higher with paper vs. on screen reading materials?
“We are not saying OER is the panacea, but it will help in many classes, it will provide an opportunity to hopefully inspire students with other material other than textbooks,” said Amaral, who joined BMCC this past October.
She said those running the pilot program know they’re going to encounter problems, whether it’s around issues of accessibility, or finding the exact material necessary for a particular course or professor, or even problems surrounding how the material gets delivered to students.
“We’re ready to do some creative problem solving,” said Amaral.
Assistant Professor of Speech, Communication and Theatre Arts Benjamin Haas said he’s explored a variety of textbook formats over the years and seen a lot of students struggle to pay for textbooks. He also said some students have used the “cost narrative,” whether real or not, as a reason for not doing class reading. Despite his concerns, everything to make the material in textbooks more accessible is a good goal, he says.
“I think the moves away from big textbook corporations, which will come in the form of e-books and PDF’s, delivered through OER and on the internet, are definitely coming whether we like it or not,” Haas said.