If you were to ask students about textbook costs, chances are you would be met with disgruntled responses related to high prices. In 2018, 2019, and 2020, UNC’s University Libraries asked this very question during its #textbookbroke project, with student responses revealing the reality of the textbook affordability crisis and its impacts on financial freedom. Between 2018 and 2020, UNC students reported spending anywhere from less than $100 to over $1,000 on textbooks for the semester, with most responses falling between $200 and $500. Alongside these staggering costs, students often reported that if they did not have to buy textbooks, they would spend the money on rent, food, supplies, and other bills. In a Fall 2018 survey conducted by University Libraries and the UNC Open Educational Resources (OER) Committee, one student responded, “The cost of textbooks are out of control and are a barrier to education.” Skyrocketing prices for textbooks have serious implications, with UNC students reporting that high textbook costs have resulted in not registering for a class, taking fewer courses, dropping a course, withdrawing from a course, and unfortunately, even failing a course.
The Open Access movement has been in motion since the 1990s, pushing for a variety of open access materials that remove barriers and emphasize equal access. Among the movement’s various foci are OER, which are educational materials that are free to use, change, or share with others. OER can be full courses, course materials, course modules, textbooks, videos, tests, software, and any other tools or materials used to support education. They are often revisable and remixable, meaning the resources can be modified so long as the original author is given credit. The opportunity to customize and redistribute these resources makes them a compelling alternative to commercial textbooks, as they provide faculty with a greater degree of freedom to address course topics that might otherwise be overlooked.
University Libraries has been a leader in UNC’s OER initiative from the start, representing the university on the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) OER Council and creating a UNC committee dedicated to promoting OER on campus. While the committee has student, staff, and administrator representation from across campus, members of the Libraries play an integral role in the committee. Jen Mayer, Associate Professor and Head of Library Research Services (LRS), serves as Committee Chair, and serving as members are Stephanie Wiegand, Associate Professor in LRS; Jennifer Beck, Libraries Human Resources and Communications Specialist; and Teresa Henderson, Libraries OER Graduate Student Employee. The committee handles a variety of issues related to the university’s OER initiative, including managing CDHE grant funds to support faculty as they adopt, adapt, or create OER. Recent committee accomplishments include partnering with the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning (CETL) on a webinar series for Open Ed Week 2021, maintaining a blog of committee perspectives, and implementing an OER course marking project that will display how much course materials cost before students register for a course. The course marking project will provide students with information regarding the cost of their course materials ahead of time, allowing them to plan their course schedules and budget for materials. The committee believes that transparency with students regarding the cost of their education is paramount considering the financial impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on students. According to one recent article, some students have been forced to forgo basic needs to afford textbooks after COVID-related job losses, while other students skipped purchasing textbooks altogether, despite worrying their grades would suffer as a result. The committee’s course marking project is an important step in providing UNC students with the information they need to make informed decisions around the cost of their education.
The Libraries is committed to equity and access to materials, so support of the OER initiative and committee is a fitting endeavor. The Libraries has provided leadership at the state and campus levels by providing workshops on OER and scholarly communications, hosting and providing Scholarship and Creative Works at Digital UNC, assisting faculty in locating discipline specific OER, answering licensing and copyright questions, and creating the Online Learning Librarian position, whose duties include providing OER support. Libraries Dean Jennifer Nutefall stated, “The work that Jen Mayer and others are doing with OER is incredibly important, making education at UNC accessible and affordable for everyone. I am impressed with the work that has been accomplished already.” These efforts also map well to UNC’s Strategic Enrollment and Student Success Plan (SESS), with Provost Mark Anderson, an enthusiastic supporter of OER, agreeing that OER are important in terms of student retention. By advocating for increased use of OER by faculty, the committee hopes to improve student academic success. In fact, during the second round of grant awards offered at UNC, 18 faculty received funds compared to four during the first year. This increase in faculty engagement with the initiative shows a significant increase in interest from UNC faculty, but Mayer points out that using OER is completely an instructor’s choice.
Mayer shared, “One of my favorite parts about OER is knowing that we support UNC students by removing some of the real cost barriers that commercial textbook and course materials create, and they can provide for a more inclusive and engaging learning experience.” Lowering costs has been a result of the campus initiative, with the use of OER in classrooms saving students an estimated $180,200 between the Summer of 2019 and Spring of 2020, savings that will grow as more courses are offered in the future.
Overall, the use of OER at UNC has been gaining momentum. CDHE grants have supported 20 faculty and one doctoral student in transforming their courses. Entire academic departments have also led the way for OER adoption, with the School of Mathematical Sciences winning the Governor’s Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) Outstanding Z Department Award in 2020. UNC is a leader in efforts to promote OER in Colorado, and the committee hopes to continue this success. In fact, UNC has received a third round of grant money from the CDHE. Mayer looks forward to watching the initiative grow while she continues her work with the OER Committee and researching OER use during her Fall 2021 sabbatical.