Portland Community College’s open educational resources (OER) movement has paid off for students. Literally.
In response to the skyrocketing cost of textbooks, PCC staff, faculty and students came together to establish a program that reduces the cost of books for an array of class sequences. The college’s effort to emphasize no-cost and low-cost textbooks has saved students more than $1 million since starting its OER project in 2015, and faculty organizers are targeting $3 million more in savings during the next two years as the project grows.
Some faculty are now able to adopt a complete open textbook to replace their commercial book. To make it easier on students, PCC’s course catalog indicates what courses have no-cost and low-cost texts available. Areas where OER has taken hold at PCC include classes in math, English, English for speakers of other languages, management and supervision, writing, psychology and geology.
“My biggest fear at the beginning of every term is when I’m buying textbooks,” said 20-year-old Kien Truong, who is studying international relations. “As a full time student, I normally take 3-4 classes every term, which means I have to spend more than $300. It is like the cost of taking another class. I end up skipping my breakfast or lunch many times because I can’t afford it. I normally try to take the class that does not require the textbooks; or if it does, I then go and borrow or buy used books from my friends.”
Rising costs a burden
At PCC, most credit classes require a textbook, and most cost more than $100. In the past three decades, the cost of textbooks has increased by 812 percent, outpacing the rise in costs associated with inflation, health care, housing, and college tuition and fees. These rising textbook costs, like having to pay $280 for one biology book, have become a burden on students. Many are forced to use their housing and food budgets to pay for the required textbooks for their classes.
In response to these surging costs, college faculty reference librarians Jen Klaudinyi and Rachel Bridgewater formed a steering committee. It comprises stakeholders from across the district, including the library, bookstore, distance learning, disability services, student government and faculty. Soon after its formation, the group got key administrative support from Rock Creek Campus President Sandra Fowler-Hill, which has helped create buy-in at PCC.
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“Faculty from across the college have adopted open and alternative course materials to make these student savings possible,” Klaudinyi said. “Even when open texts are available for courses, it takes hard work to redesign classes, so it is the faculty who deserve congratulations for achieving these savings.”
OER movement gaining steam
OER involves open textbooks, which are texts released under flexible copyright licenses, like Creative Commons, that facilitate copying, printing and adapting at no cost. They are often written by scholars and published by grant-funded projects or universities.
Other PCC instructors can adapt existing open materials, adopt the pieces that work, and incorporate other free or low-cost materials, like library eBooks or articles. Some instructors even create their own materials, such as new textbooks. Several college faculty teams have received outside funding to adopt, adapt or create open materials for their courses from Open Oregon Educational Resources, a legislative initiative dedicated to making textbooks affordable in the state.
Instructors have been using open and alternative resources long before it became an initiative at the college. But since Oregon passed legislation in 2015 making it easier for colleges to adopt OER practices, the momentum is surging across the state, as well as in Washington and California, which have state-level OER funding and legislation.
“Without external funding from the state, especially grants from Open Oregon, we would not have been able to achieve these savings for students,” Klaudinyi said. “At the heart of this work, faculty are able to reconnect with their learning objectives and incorporate relevant materials that help students learn.”
Savings example: The math sequence
One of the proposed textbook adoptions under way is where the PCC board of directors made a Strategic Planning Initiative investment of $190,000 that could translate in another $1 million in annual savings in the near future. The project focuses on math courses, which are some of the highest enrolled at the college: Math 60 and 65 attract 6,000 and 3,000 credit students, respectively, every year. The classes use the same commercial textbook, which runs about $117 new at the PCC bookstore.
The next class, Math 95, uses a different textbook, which also costs $117 for the estimated 4,000 students who enroll in it annually.
“It’s a shame that so much money is spent on these textbooks for basic algebra when knowledge in these topics has not changed in hundreds of years,” said Alex Jordan, math instructor and project lead.
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Jordan said his Open Resources for Community College Algebra Project aims to create a single set of course materials that covers the algebra series and uses attractive features found in commercial textbooks, such as online homework, interactive reading and embedded videos. The final product will be freely available to students as an eBook, with print versions sold in the bookstore for reasonable prices.
“PCC will own the copyright to the book, but it will be openly licensed with a Creative Commons attribution license, meaning that other schools have permission to use or modify and use the book as they like,” Jordan said.
This fall, some sections of math will pilot phases of the new project and by spring term of 2018, all materials will be piloted in some sections across PCC with wider adoptions to follow.