TYLER ELLYSON, UNK Communications
KEARNEY — Kim Carlson doesn’t require students to buy expensive textbooks for most of her classes.
Instead, the University of Nebraska Kearney biology professor uses a variety of free or low-cost resources to educate them.
As a member of UNK’s Open Educational Resources Committee — and a parent whose wallet is directly affected by soaring college textbook prices — Carlson recognizes the need to remove this financial barrier.
Simply put, “There are kids who can’t afford these books,” she said.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of college textbooks increased 88% between 2006 and 2016. The Education Data Initiative reports that the average full-time undergraduate student spends more than $1,200 on books and other course materials every year, forcing some of them to work overtime, skip meals or ignore other expenses to pay the bill.
One in five students surveyed by the Education Data Initiative said the cost of books and materials directly influenced their decision on which courses to take.
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“Our students shouldn’t have to choose between food security and textbooks, and they shouldn’t have to choose their careers based on the cost of books,” said Rochelle Reeves, associate professor and curricula librarian at the UNK.
Reeves is another member of the Open Educational Resources (OER) committee, a group working to expand the use of free and reduced-cost learning materials at UNK, where the average student pays around $1,000 per year for books and supplies.
Since colleges and universities cannot control the price of traditional textbooks, the OER program focuses on removing them from the equation.
OER uses free, publicly available teaching and research resources, as well as materials available through the Calvin T. Ryan Library at no additional cost to students, to make coursework more affordable. This includes open-access textbooks, e-books, videos, modules, tests, journals, websites, and other tools.
To qualify as an OER course, the cost of a student’s materials cannot exceed $40, excluding lab kits.
For her genetics course, Carlson worked with a company called Skyepack to design a custom e-book using her own presentations and notes, along with other open-access materials. Instead of paying nearly $300 for the latest edition of a textbook, her students get unlimited access to the e-book for just $39. The process cost Carlson nothing.
“The students really, really like it,” she said. “My class grades are much better and the students are more actively engaged.”
Carlson, co-chair of UNK’s biology department, believes the new class format makes her a more effective instructor. OER gives professors more control over the content of their courses, allowing them to select materials that are both relevant and interesting to students.
“It’s great fun to change up and refresh,” said Carlson, who convinced a few co-workers to create their own e-books for upcoming classes.
Supported by a system grant from the University of Nebraska, UNK launched its OER program in 2015 as a pilot project that included four introductory courses in biology, English, political science, and teacher training.
The campus-wide initiative has grown steadily since then.
From fall 2015 to fall 2021, a total of 86 courses were offered through OER, with over 2,600 students enrolled in these courses. There are 57 courses with a combined enrollment of nearly 1,800 students designated as OERs this semester. Now part of the Office of Graduate Studies and University Outreach, the program has saved UNK students more than $500,000.
“I think we have good momentum, but we want to see even more growth,” Reeves said.
Known systemwide as Open Nebraska (ONE), the program is a priority project for NU System Chairman Ted Carter, who continues to support initiatives that make higher education more accessible. OER and a companion e-book program have saved NU students more than $9 million system-wide.
This semester, NU campuses began using a new grading system that allows students to see which courses are using free or reduced-cost materials when they register.
Support is also available for teachers.
Each faculty member participating in the OER program is assigned a librarian and an instructional designer to help them set up their courses and identify resources. Professors also receive stipends to convert their courses to OER.
Carlson and the other committee members know that OER doesn’t work for every course, but they would like to see affordable materials offered in as many courses as possible.
“It’s the best thing for our students,” Carlson said.