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UNC Affordable & OER Committee

From Student Activist to OER Advocate: The Journey of a Textbook Affordability Librarian by Nancy Henke, UNC Assistant Professor

by Nancy Henke on 2023-10-19T14:06:00-06:00 in Educational Technology, Higher Education, Library & Information Science, Open & Affordable Educational Materials, Open Initiatives & Resources | 0 Comments

As an undergraduate, long before I knew about affordable and open educational resources (AOER), I gave a speech at a well-attended university event where I decried the high cost of textbooks. After my speech, a fellow student asked me, shocked, “Are you allowed to talk about that?”

Spoiler: I’m still talking about it.

I didn’t know then that my career path would lead me into the higher education classroom as an instructor of Composition and Literature, through my degree in Library and Information Science, and right back around to issues of educational access and knowledge equity.

As UNC’s Textbook Affordability Librarian, I develop, sustain, and advocate for initiatives that promote free-to-student educational resources. This may mean working with faculty to adopt, adapt, or create OER for their courses, or exploring options for integrating library-licensed materials into a course, such as e-books available through library subscription databases.

My 13 years teaching at another university prior to my role at UNC has certainly influenced my views on AOER. On the one hand, I have extensive experience developing courses – from choosing textbooks to developing lessons and assessments to crafting quizzes and building Canvas courses – and I recognize the immense workload that comes with that endeavor. Converting a course from using a traditional, all-rights-reserved textbook to affordable and open resources is no mean feat; I deeply sympathize with faculty members’ legitimate concerns about the labor involved in doing so. I similarly respect the principles of academic freedom and the right of faculty to choose learning resources they deem best for their students and courses.

On the other hand, though, from the vantage point of a classroom-instructor-turned-AOER-advocate, I now see aspects of my previous relationship with the textbook industry very differently than I did while I was teaching. Especially in light of my impassioned speech about textbook costs as an undergraduate, I’ll admit that the cost of my students’ course materials wasn’t top of mind when I was an instructor.

Consider the opacity of textbook costs for faculty. It is possible for a faculty member to choose a textbook for a course and not even know exactly what students will pay for it. Some publishers make a faculty member “dig” to determine how much students will pay for the title, and in retrospect I’m ashamed to think that I often required a textbook without knowing the out-of-pocket cost for my students. After all, as an instructor I received a free copy of any textbook I was considering adopting for my courses, since publishers want to make it easy for faculty to review (and ideally, adopt) a textbook they sell. Of course, I knew it wouldn’t be free for my students, but the fact that my copy of the book simply materialized when I requested it from a publisher led to me focus only on the content of the book, not its cost.

Case in point: I taught early American literature for many years, and each semester I assigned a high-quality yet high-cost anthology from a major publisher. Even though I purposefully chose an older edition of the book to cut student costs, I now know that students easily paid over $70 for a new copy of the previous edition and over $50 for a used copy. And, to make it even worse, this is for literature that is so old that it’s in the public domain, meaning it’s no longer protected by copyright. At least 90% of the works I taught in that course are available for free anywhere on the web simply because of their age. Yes, there was plenty of “value-added” in this text: essential historical context, helpful timelines, thoughtful introductions written by experts in the field, etc. Yet that kind of content is also available in OER texts for free.

In the end, I’m a realist and recognize that not every learning resource in every class in every discipline will ever be completely open, and that’s fine. Yet as former teaching faculty now immersed in the world of open education, I hope to reach those instructors who, like me in my previous career, aren’t aware of OER or have misconceptions about them. We all know that the costs of higher education have soared, but what students pay for tuition and fees is simply outside the control of faculty. The cost of course materials, however, is within their control, and when a student doesn’t pay $70 for their American literature anthology, they have $70 for groceries, or gas, or a new pair of winter boots, or a thousand other things they need for themselves and their family.

There’s nothing I can do now about my having required expensive textbooks in the past other than fail forward. My position at UNC Libraries gives me the opportunity to make amends by advancing programs that help current and future UNC students save on textbooks. My undergraduate self who gave that speech way back when might have been disappointed that Instructor Nancy didn’t do more to control textbook costs for her students, but she’d certainly be on board with Librarian Nancy who works on behalf of AOER.  

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