GRCC joins national affordable textbook program


(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids Community College has joined a growing list of schools that are providing free, professional-quality textbooks to students to improve access to higher educational learning.

GRCC last week announced it is partnering with Rice University’s OpenStax program to encourage the implementation of free or reduced priced peer-reviewed, open-source textbooks in the classroom.

Steven Ender, president at GRCC, said expenses not covered by tuition, such as textbooks, can be a barrier to students’ degree completion efforts.

“We are always looking for ways to help our students succeed, and the use of open-resource textbooks is an important way to do that,” said Ender.

OpenStax College is a nonprofit organization housed at Texas-based Rice University and is supported by a number of philanthropic foundations: William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Twenty Million Minds Foundation, Maxfield Foundation, The Calvin K. Kazanjian Foundation, Rice University and the Bill and Stephanie Sick Fund.

Michael Vargo, dean of GRCC’s School of Arts and Sciences, said OpenStax is a grant-funded program charged with the responsibility to create open educational resources for 25 of the nation’s college courses with the highest enrollments.

“The intention is to make sure that students have access to high-quality textbooks for their college courses because textbooks have become so expensive, it has become a substantial barrier for access for a large population of students,” said Vargo. “They are really well-funded by some folks who know a lot about the higher education space.”

GRCC became involved with OpenStax after attending a conference at Lansing Community College and hearing groups present on open educational resources, according to Vargo.

Each OpenStax textbook is peer-reviewed on a two- to three-year cycle by a group of educators or content experts to ensure its readability and accuracy, and that it meets the necessary requirements of the college-level course. Since the program is openly licensed through the Creative Commons, the textbooks are offered online or downloaded as a PDF for free, or at a reduced price for a hardcopy through a participating school bookstore or Amazon.

“A textbook we would use for our Introduction to Physics class costs between $200 and $300, and the OpenStax version of that textbook — and I have it on high authority from the physics department that it is a great textbook — costs less than $50 for the hard copy,” said Vargo.

“It is really a significant reduction in student out-of-pocket costs if they do want a hard copy to hold onto. If they are able to work with the PDF — the electronic version, it doesn’t cost them anything at all.”

Examples of the textbooks OpenStax currently offers include: College Physics, Introduction to Sociology, Concepts of Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Pre-calculus, Statistics, Principles of Economics, Chemistry, U.S. History, Psychology and Principles of Economics.

Through GRCC’s partnership with the OpenStax program, students may start using the textbooks as soon as they are offered. Vargo indicated the books that are going to be available for student use is dependent on the faculty since they are the curriculum experts and make the decision about which book is used their classes.

“My job, as I see it right now, has just been to make people aware of open educational resources, because the research suggests only about a third of faculty are actually even aware of the concept of OER. Once we make them aware, they are pretty in favor of them,” said Vargo. “Ultimately, it will be faculty members who make decisions around adoptions for the materials in their courses.”

Brent Spitler, associate professor in GRCC’s business department, is adopting an OpenStax textbook for a statistics course this fall. Spitler said in addition to cost-savings for students, the digital texts allows for some flexibility.

“We also have the ability to provide additional context, effectively customizing the materials to our specific course objectives,” said Spitler. “This is an opportunity to bring in input from other sources, like our tutorial lab coordinator, as well as industry advisory groups. Once we develop this customized material, we can provide it, copyrighted, to OpenStax for use by other institutions.”

More than 1,600 schools and higher educational institutions have partnered with OpenStax to provide the option of the open educational resources to students.

Vargo said since the average full-time student can spend between $1,000 and $1,300 annually on textbooks, it can have a positive impact on the economically challenged and working-class student populations making up a significant portion of community college enrollment.

“Textbook costs have been a variable we have been dealing with. Studies suggest that up to half of students in college report not purchasing a textbook or delaying purchasing a textbook because of the cost,” said Vargo. “If you don’t have the materials that your classroom is requiring, is referencing, you just aren’t going to be able to be as successful.”

The Journal of Computing in Higher Education published a study on the impact of OER and learning in higher education in September 2015, which indicated in some cases the cost of textbooks approaches or exceeds the cost of tuition and “while not usually measured directly, it is possible that the use of no-cost or low-cost OER might free students’ resources to support increased credit loads which then enhance progress toward graduation.”

The study assessed nearly 5,000 post-secondary students using OER against more than 11,000 control students using commercial textbooks at 10 institutions throughout the country. Based on the results, the study indicated “even when controlling for differences in previous enrollment, students in courses using OER enrolled in a significantly higher number of credits in the next semester.”

Students using OER also were found to perform as well as or better than students with traditional textbooks in terms of course completion, achieving a final grade of C- or higher, and course grade. The authors of the study emphasized their belief that the “effects demonstrated in the study result from differing degrees of access and affordability facilitated by open licenses used by OER,” rather than differences in instructional design.

Vargo said if the college can save students money on textbooks, hopefully it will encourage them to purchase additional contact or credit hours and shorten the length of time they spend working on their education.

“There is a really strong correlation, an inverse relationship, between the amount of time you are spending on your education, longitudinally, and how likely you are to actually complete it,” said Vargo.

“The longer it takes you to do it, the less likely you are to finish. So if we can do anything to shorten up that transit time, I think we are probably increasing the likelihood that folks are going to be able to complete their education successfully.”

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