By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Kim Carlson doesn’t require students to purchase expensive textbooks for most of her courses.
Instead, the University of Nebraska at Kearney biology professor utilizes 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 pocketbook is directly impacted by the soaring price of college textbooks – 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of college textbooks increased 88% from 2006 to 2016. The Education Data Initiative reports that the average full-time, undergraduate student spends more than $1,200 on books and other course materials each year, forcing some of them to work extra hours, skip meals or ignore other expenses to pay the bill.
One in five students surveyed by the Education Data Initiative indicated the cost of books and materials directly influenced their decision on what classes to take.
“Our students shouldn’t have to choose between food security and textbooks, and they shouldn’t have to choose their career based on the cost of books,” said Rochelle Reeves, an associate professor and curriculum librarian at 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 can’t control the price of traditional textbooks, the OER program focuses on removing them from the equation.
OER uses free and publicly available teaching and research resources, as well as materials available through Calvin T. Ryan Library at no additional cost to students, to make courses more affordable. This includes open-access textbooks, e-books, videos, modules, tests, journals, websites and other tools.
To qualify as an OER course, a student’s cost for materials can’t exceed $40, with the exception of lab kits.
For her genetics class, 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 newest edition of a textbook, her students get unlimited access to the e-book for just $39. The process didn’t cost Carlson anything.
“The students really, really like it,” she said. “Grades in my class are much better, and the students are more actively engaged.”
Carlson, a co-chair in the UNK Department of Biology, believes the new class format makes her a more effective instructor. OER gives faculty more control over their course content, allowing them to select materials that are both relevant and interesting to students.
“It’s a lot of fun to change it up and kind of refresh yourself,” said Carlson, who convinced a couple colleagues to create their own e-books for upcoming courses.
Supported by a grant from the University of Nebraska System, UNK launched its OER program in 2015 as a pilot project that included four introductory-level classes in biology, English, political science and teacher education.
The campuswide initiative has continued to grow since then.
From fall 2015 through fall 2021, a total of 86 courses were offered as part of OER, with more than 2,600 students enrolled in these classes. There are 57 courses with a combined enrollment of nearly 1,800 students designated as OER this semester. Now part of the Office of Graduate Studies and Academic Outreach, the program has saved UNK students more than $500,000.
“I think we have great momentum, but we want to see even more growth,” said Reeves.
Known systemwide as Open Nebraska (ONE), the program is a priority project for NU System President Ted Carter, who continues to support initiatives that make higher education more accessible. OER and a complementary e-book program have saved NU students more than $9 million across the system.
This semester, NU campuses started using a new marking system that allows students to see which courses use free or reduced-cost materials when they’re registering.
Support is available for the teachers, too.
Each faculty member participating in the OER program is assigned a librarian and instructional designer to help them set up their courses and identify resources. Faculty also receive stipends to convert their courses to OER.
Carlson and the other committee members know OER doesn’t work for every course, but they’d like to see affordable materials offered in as many classes as possible.
“It’s the best thing for our students,” Carlson said.