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Setting Free the Textbooks: UMass Amherst Libraries are on a mission to save students money by helping professors reimagine traditional course materials

By Katherine Davis-Young

textbooks


When Electrical and Computer Engineering student Sean Turner ’17 enrolled at UMass Amherst, he ran into a frustrating predicament.  

“They kind of kill you with textbook costs especially in Engineering,” Turner said. “Textbooks can cost up to $400 each and you only use them for a semester…it’s a waste of money.”

Turner’s parents are helping him pay for his college expenses, but he still felt the cost of books was too high. He couldn’t avoid taking his required engineering courses, but in some cases he simply gave up buying the textbooks.

In the fall of 2016, Turner was pleasantly surprised. He enrolled in ECE 314: Introduction to Probability and Random Processes, to find there was no textbook at all, instead there was a free online guide written by his professor.

It’s a concept known as an “open textbook,” and thanks in large part to the efforts of the Libraries it’s the kind of low-cost digital resource that is showing up in more and more UMass Amherst classrooms. By encouraging professors to swap costly traditional textbooks for freely available online resources, the Libraries have helped students save an estimated $1.6 million in textbook costs since 2011.

That’s welcome news for students. It’s no secret that a college education comes with a bigger price tag every year. Student loan debt in the United States now tops $1.3 trillion. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of textbooks is rising even faster than big college expenses like tuition or housing. Textbook prices have skyrocketed, increasing more than 945 percent since 1980. The College Board estimates students at four-year colleges now need to budget more than $1,200 per year just for textbooks.

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, a number of factors push textbook prices higher each year. First, textbook manufacturers don’t have to answer directly to the consumers of their products since professors assign the book, and the book’s cost is passed onto the student. The report also points out that just five companies control more than 80 percent of textbook publishing, allowing for a monopoly-like effect on the market. Finally, books are updated frequently; ensuring cheaper, used editions quickly become obsolete.

"The cost of textbooks is an issue that’s important to both students and the library,” said Jeremy Smith, the Libraries Digital Projects Manager. Smith, along with Scholarly Communication and Special Initiatives Librarian Marilyn Billings, is behind the Libraries’ open education resources initiative.

The idea of making things “open,” or free to share, with limited copyright or licensing restrictions, goes back about as far as the history of the internet. Load any web browser and it won’t take long to find a website built from a design shared freely among coders, or a royalty-free image in a Wikipedia article. Increasingly, that free, shareable concept is making its way into textbook production. 

Billings learned about the concept in 2009, but said at first, it wasn’t obvious to her how the Libraries could help; it is professors, not librarians, who choose course materials, after all. But it wasn’t long before Billings, Smith, and their team arrived at an idea.

“One of the stumbling blocks is that faculty say theoretically they’re into open education resources—they like the idea—but they don’t have the time or the resources to do this,” Smith said. “So we thought, the Libraries could buy them time, essentially.”

The Libraries designed small grants of $1,000 or $2,500, depending on the size of the course the professor teaches. Professors would still be the ones designing their courses, but the Libraries could pay them for the extra hours it would take to rework their syllabi and adapt lesson plans to use alternatives to the expensive textbooks they had required before.

Billings approached the UMass Amherst Provost Office with the idea in the fall of 2010 and the program was approved and launched by February 2011.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was just so fast. It clearly hit a nerve that mattered to the administration here at the university,” Billings said.

Library donors have funded the grants so the amount of grant money available has varied yearly. Since 2011, the Libraries have given more than $100,000 to faculty. And the grants won’t stop there. Smith’s job description changed in June 2015 so he could focus on the issue full-time.

The grants give faculty several options for bringing open educational resources into their classrooms. They can adopt an existing open textbook in place of a commercial book. They can also adapt a variety of materials from databases and academic journals that the Libraries subscribe to and pay for, which students can access. Professors also have the option to create something entirely new with the assistance of research librarians.

That’s what Professor Hossein Pishro-Nik did. Pishro-Nik teaches the engineering course that Turner enrolled in in fall 2016.

Pishro-Nik joined UMass Amherst’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in 2005. In the years following, he said he noticed a troubling pattern among students.

“When I started teaching, the price of the textbook was around $80, then around 2011 I noticed the price was around $140 or $150. A lot of students stopped buying the book, which hurt them in the classroom,” Pishro-Nik said. 

He had grown so concerned by the trend that he started thinking he should just write a textbook himself that he could distribute to his students.

“Then at the same time, I heard about the Libraries’ grants and I thought ‘wow that’s a great opportunity!’” he said.

With the Libraries’ help he created a website, ProbabilityCourse.com. On it, he features all of the text you might find in a traditional textbook under a Creative Commons license, in addition to video lectures, sample problems, and a calculator tool.

“I’ve never had a complaint from students,” Pishro-Nik said, of his site.

Turner, along with other students from Pishro-Nik’s class said they liked that they could access the site from anywhere, and that it didn’t cost them a dime.

The surprising thing, Pishro-Nik said, is how popular his site has become outside of UMass Amherst. He allows other teachers to register on the site to use it in their classrooms. Since launching the site in fall of 2014, he said more than 100 professors around the world have created accounts.

That’s one of the appeals of open educational resources, Smith said, “If you make this freely available, it’s going to impact way more people than a traditional textbook would.”

Not every professor wants or needs to create something from scratch, though.

“There is so much material available on the web, I thought, ‘why should I add to material that’s already there?’” said Shubha Tewari, a lecturer in the Physics Department.

Tewari teaches from an open textbook created by a nonprofit organization at Rice University called OpenStax. Students can access the book for free online, or order a hardbound copy for about $50–cheap, compared to traditional textbooks. Tewari also used the Libraries grant money to record some of her lectures that students can watch for free on YouTube.

Tewari said the important thing is to get students to do their readings and homework–something that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t buying the books.

“I can give them context and deeper insights; that happens in the classroom. But that cannot proceed unless they have some grounding outside the classroom,” she said.

Tewari said the OpenStax textbook she uses isn’t perfect. She would like to be able to tailor the material a little more, for example, and she wishes the online homework system that accompanies the text was more user-friendly. Like any technology, she hopes free online textbooks will change and improve over time.

Billings agrees that keeping up the momentum and interest in developing open education resources will be important if the concept is to be sustainable long-term.

“As we hear comments from faculty, we take them to heart really quickly and start working on things they see as barriers to what they want to be able to accomplish,” Billings said.

Quality of the materials is also a priority moving forward, Smith said.

“Professors think, ‘Are they any good? If they’re free they must be crappy,’” Smith said, “But there’s a lot of effort that’s been made in the open community to replicate the traditional publishing models of peer review and rigorous scholarship.”

The biggest challenge, Billings and Smith said, is simply making faculty aware of the wealth of free resources that are now available to students and professors. The Libraries have hosted several outreach events to spread the word. The UMass Student Government Association and MassPIRG, the UMass branch of a national student-run public interest group, have also joined the Libraries in promoting the concept across campus.

“It’s a social justice issue. The price to attend college is on the rise. But textbooks, that’s an area where students have some input. Students can make some changes,” said Lucas Patenaude, ’18, Secretary of University Policy with the UMass Student Government Association (SGA).

SGA has sent emails about open education resources to deans and reached out to professors individually, MassPIRG has placed editorials in the Daily Collegian. Both organizations have helped with Library outreach events.

The Libraries, SGA, and MassPIRG don’t expect every course to switch over to open textbooks. A literature course, for example, might require copyrighted novels, or an upper-level course might focus on a topic too specific for a basic textbook. So for now, the goal is to promote open education resources among the university’s large introductory courses.

“Those courses have 200 or 300 students in them and they’re classes everyone has to take.

It would be great if we could take the textbook cost out of those classes,” Patenaude said.

To date, more than 60 UMass faculty have received grants from the Libraries. All told, that accounts for about 100 courses that have traded traditional textbooks for open textbooks, or other money-saving alternatives.

Billings said one of the most exciting parts of the project these five years has been seeing other universities reach out to find out how they might replicate UMass Amherst’s program. Billings said she’s spoken to librarians and administrators around the country and sees the trend spreading.

“You start to do something to try to engage and when you’re starting to do it you don’t realize how important it is or how impactful it can be,” Billings said.

“It’s really nice actually. I think more classes should use them,” said Turner, of his first experience with an open textbook. For students like him, the impact of the program is already appreciated.  


[This article originally appeared in Issue 1, 2017 of Bookmark; The magazine of the UMass Amherst Libraries. Illustration by Chloe Deely '17.]