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As Campuses Move to Embrace OER, College Libraries Become Key Players

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jan 4, 2018

Textbook publishers typically deploy sales reps to campuses to convince professors to adopt their titles. But who makes the pitch for free or low-cost alternatives to textbooks known as OER, or open educational resources?

Increasingly, the answer is the campus library.

Take the University of Texas at Arlington, which has a full-time Open Education Librarian, Michelle Reed. One project she led this year involved creating a series of videos promoting “Textbook Heroes,”professors who have replaced commercial textbooks in their courses with OER. The first of the videos includes several short interviews with students complaining about the high cost of commercial textbooks and expressing their wish that their professors would try open resources instead. One student in the first video in the series said he has skipped buying some assigned textbooks because they were too expensive. “Sometimes there’s no option,” he said. “If you don’t have the money for it then you don’t have the money for it. And it kind of hinders everything.”

These days more colleges are setting up support systems to encourage OER adoption, and to help professors navigate the differences that come with using open materials rather than adopting a commercial textbook. Even when professors are convinced to try open educational resources, for instance, they often have questions, such as how to find them and how to tell which ones are high-quality.

Reed says that she addresses such questions by running workshops for faculty members, and doing one-on-one consultations. She also tracks how well OER is working in the courses that use them, and tallies up how much money the efforts are saving students. Before her job was created last year, the university already had other systems to support OER, but her role brings focus to the efforts. “They didn’t have anyone to monitor the progress and report out,” says Ms. Reed. “Any of those things are required to build momentum and build their reach.”

Several college libraries have created positions like Reed’s in recent years, or assigned those duties as part of existing jobs.

Another way college libraries are helping their campuses embrace open resources is by banding together to share information about OER. One of those efforts is the Open Textbook Library, created by a network of libraries organized by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Open Education. The online library contains links to OER titles as well as reviews written by professors. Each short review gives a star rating and comments about the accuracy, longevity, clarity, consistency, grammar and other factors. One for a free linear algebra online textbook reads: “There is a lot of great basic material here. However, there are several topics missing that I would consider part of a standard first course in linear algebra.”

“In the last year our growth has skyrocketed,” says Sarah Faye Cohen, managing director of the center’s Open Textbook Network. In that time the membership has grown from 300 institutions to nearly 650, she says.

In Ohio, a library consortium called OhioLink is part of a statewide effort to curate and enhance a set of OER course materials for 21 course subjects that have high enrollments. Teams of faculty members from various disciplines will review and select materials that will eventually be placed in an online repository for anyone in the state to use.

The collaboration also includes Ohio Dominican University, North Central State College, The Ohio State University and the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, and it is supported by a $1.3-million grant from the Ohio Department of Education.

That effort may particularly help community colleges, which typically do not have the resources to offer as much support to faculty members interested in OER, says Shanna Smith Jaggars, director of student success research at Ohio State's Office of Distance Education and E-Learning.

And community college students often feel the cost of textbooks more acutely than four-year students. Jaggars points to figures from the College Board that show that students typically spend more than $1,000 each academic year for books, supplies, and equipment. “For a four-year university like us that represents about 13 percent of in-state tuition,” she says. “For community college students, that’s about 40 percent of in-state tuition.”

Jaggars says that libraries are key partners in efforts to replace traditional textbooks because they have often already bought campus-wide licenses to things like scholarly journals or video libraries like that professors might want to assign.

The Ohio effort is an example of how libraries are not the only players on campuses involved with OER these days. “It’s no longer just one person,” says Cohen, of the Open Textbook Network. “It is becoming a cross-campus, institutional initiative.”

Some college leaders hope that taking a more systematic approach to supporting OER can make free online options a more viable competitor to commercial textbooks. Jaggars notes that even if OER remains a small player, if it gets big enough, that could force traditional publishers to reduce prices to compete.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that College Board does not break down specific averages for student spending on textbooks, but instead reports a broader category of "books, supplies and equipment."

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