Open and Affordable Textbooks Project Awards Grants to Faculty

by Isis Zhang, Contributor | The Rutgers—Newark Observer | 03/01/2017

This past fall, the Rutgers Library opened the Open and Affordable Textbooks (OAT) Project, which is a pilot grant initiative to enhance textbook affordability at Rutgers University. Thirty-two grants of $1,000 each were awarded to faculty and instructors across the Rutgers system who chose to adopt, adapt, or create a free or low cost textbook, as an alternative to traditional course materials.

Ten of these awardees are from the Newark campus and they come from varying backgrounds from English to Public Administration. Below are portions of interviews with some of the recipients.

Why did you apply for the grant?

Manu Chander (Department of English)

“In English classes, it’s essential, I think, for students to have the books in class—we learn best when we read together, following along, using our eyes and ears to pick up on things in the text that we might otherwise miss. But I know books are often too expensive for students to buy. I’m hoping that an open source textbook will make it possible for every student to have the text in class.”

Patricia Akhimie (Department of English, Program in Women's and Gender Studies)

“College is expensive and many students struggle to manage the cost of course books on top of everything else. When students choose not to buy, rent, or borrow the books for my courses, however, their grades can suffer and they can lose the chance to receive and enjoy a valuable learning experience.  Whenever I can, I try to give students free access to the readings for my courses, but there are challenges involved.  Distributing pdfs can easily violate copyright and exceed ‘fair use.’  Placing textbooks on reserve at the library allows only one at a time to use the books, and is inconvenient for students who don't live on or near campus.  I applied for the grant so that I could experiment with a new way of getting the readings into my students' hands for free.”

Karen Chaffee (Department of Chemistry)

“Currently in general chemistry we are using a traditional textbook with an online homework program with practice problems. Though it’s a nice system, it’s really expensive, $100 per semester. Since this is a two semester course students will spend $200 each on this program, and if they don’t pass they have to purchase the license again. So when I applied for this grant program, I applied to create a free homework program for students. The practice and homework problems will be available on Blackboard to students. These questions will be based on multiple choice from my past exams. The program that we’re using will take these exam questions, and vary the numbers so that practice variations will be created. Also, there will be step by step tutorials to show how to do problems. So students can do different problems with tutorials again and again until they learn how to do it.”

Matthew Giobbi (Department of Psychology)

“I started this process of moving towards creating my own open source materials for my classes before the grant was available. So when the grant proposal came to me in an email and I was amazed because I was already making plans to implement this. That morning I responded to their email with my proposal that I had already put a year’s worth of thought into. I had a personal motivation as an academic to fight against textbook prices that are abusive against students and academics. Speaking from the perspective of a psychology professor, for intro courses this constant republishing isn’t necessary. The textbook industry is driven by a profit motive, not an intellectual motive (hence the republishing of textbooks with few changes). It is important for people to have access to academic work to facilitate learning both in the classroom and in the academic sphere."

Jiahuan Lu (SPAA Assistant Professor)

“The cover proposal came after I taught an Applied Statistics course. I had been using a textbook that was widely used in many programs in the country, but I noticed that the price of that textbook is very high. A new edition of the book is around $250, and even the used version is over $144, which is too high for many students and would pose a heavy burden to them. Statistics is a tough course for many students so they need a textbook to guide them, so I was struggling at that time to balance the need for a textbook and the price of the book. So when I heard about the grant program I thought it might be a good choice to consider.”

What materials do you plan on using?

Jiahuan Lu (SPAA Assistant Professor)

“I have identified two sources. There is the Open Textbook Library, which offers several relevant textbooks I could use. Another source is the Rutgers Library, which has several e-books which I will also consider. So I will review all those sources and find the one that has the most relevance to my class.”

How do you think this open source textbook program will impact students and faculty?

Patricia Akhimie (Department of English, Program in Women's and Gender Studies)

“I hope that this program will inspire instructors to make use of new, free open source textbooks and course materials, many of which are as good or better than the paid versions.”

Rachel Emas (SPAA Assistant Teaching Professor; Program Coordinator, GEOMPA)

“Without the grant, I don’t think that I would have had the capacity to undertake the effort to use these materials. But this forces us to acknowledge the need of our students. Since the program’s development we have been set on providing free texts, whether we pay for them or whether they are free, open, and accessible texts. And so it was clear that the grant program aligned with the objectives of the GEO-MPA program and so I was really grateful it could help me achieve them and make the program greater.”

Which of your courses are using these open source textbooks? Do you anticipate any changes to the courses compared to using a traditional textbook?

Manu Chander (Department of English)

“I’m testing out an open source anthology of world literature for ‘Introduction to Global Literatures’ in Spring 2018. In the first half of the class we’re using the open source book, and in the second half we’re using a traditional anthology—this instead of requiring a two-volume anthology. So, the price gets cut in half, and I’ll have the chance to see which of the two kinds of anthologies is more effective. Whether I eventually move a full open source textbook class depends on how this test run goes.”

Matthew Giobbi (Department of Psychology)

“I am using this in my History in Modern Viewpoints of Psychology, the course I’ve been teaching at Rutgers since 2006. Over the years I’ve tried out different textbooks to learn for myself and find the best book. What came to my attention was the cost. Even the least expensive books were over 150 dollars, and the price could range to up to over 300 dollars for some books. The prices were not practical for my students. I also found many of the textbooks were lacking as well, because there were things I wanted to teach that weren’t in them. Also, some of the textbooks held stances that went against what I wanted to teach. So I decided to write my own textbook.”

Weiwei Chen (Rutgers Business School)

“I am going to begin using these online materials in Fall 2017 in my Introduction to Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma course. I will have to make my lectures and powerpoints more comprehensive and self-contained to supplement the lack of a textbook, but it’s definitely doable, especially with online materials and websites to enhance the material I teach in lecture.”

Do you anticipate any challenges or changes to the course?

Karen Chaffee (Department of Chemistry)

“While the commercially available system was created by a company who invested a lot of money into creating it, this homework system we’re implementing is being created with $1000 by three people, me, Paul Ippolito, and Joy McDonald. So it’s definitely not going to be as fleshed out. Also, the current system has a 24 hour help line, but ours will not. So perhaps students will have to come in to office hours and ask for help on problems like they used to?”

What feedback have you heard from students so far? Anything surprising?

Matthew Giobbi (Department of Psychology)

“The winter course went really well, and the students gave me good feedback. Of course, the students were happy that I was not requiring them to buy a $300 textbook. What’s interesting is seeing students encountering reading primary source material and dealing with it on their own without having it digested for them. When you are reading a primary source it’s just you and the thinker, the student has to understand that author on their own terms. That’s a different skill, which is especially needed in graduate school. Students felt that reading primary materials was a more empowering way to engage with material. With a little guidance from me and the lecture, students were thinking on their own, compared to using a traditional textbook.”

How do you think this grant and what you are doing will affect the university on a larger scale?

Karen Chaffee (Department of Chemistry)

“I plan on making this homework system an available resource for the entire department, including other campuses. Any chemistry professor can elect to use this system instead of the commercially available one. Also, I was thinking of making a system like this for other classes, like organic chemistry, and certainly a system like this could work well in math classes as well.”

Weiwei Chen (Rutgers Business School)

“I think the grant is really helpful in pushing professors forward. Of course we update course material each semester in response to new trends, but not substantially. So a program like this gives us an incentive to really update our courses. Also, it makes us more cognizant of the burden on students.”

Jiahuan Lu (SPAA Assistant Professor)

“People need resources to pursue these programs. Professors can use the financial support from the university to hire student assistants, for example, to go to the library and research possible materials. One of the most direct consequences of this initiative is to substantially reduce students’ cost in their programs. Many of our students are not full time students, so they have jobs, and many are also first generation students. So if the textbooks cost too much it will have a negative effect on their learning. If these students cannot perform well in programs like the ones I am teaching in, then when they go on to work and become leaders in the public service and nonprofit realms then they might not perform well in their jobs and will have a negative effect on the community at large.”

What effects outside of your own course do you see this grant program having?

Christina Zambrano (Department of Psychology)

“I was not aware of the kinds of resources that were available, so the grant caught my eye and made me think “What’s this? This sounds interesting and beneficial.” I had no experience at all with open source material and online textbooks. When I then saw how many choices there were, I thought that I wanted to try this in my other courses as well. I definitely don’t see this class as the end for this grant.”

Vanessa LoBue (Department of Psychology)

“I think this is a really good initiative because it’s going to get a bunch of professors to do different things and then we’ll all be able to report back on how it works. I imagine for some of us it’s not going to work but this way we can figure out what does and what doesn’t. I think this will also affect people who write textbooks. It’s going to create an interesting tension because the folks who write these traditional textbooks will not have as much motivation to write textbooks and to use open source materials. So the question is what’s going to happen to motivate professors to write free textbooks. I know how much work goes into writing a textbook and I would never write a textbook unless I was paid well to do it. So the big challenge is how we’re going to deal with this and motivate professors to write excellent textbooks without overcharging moving forward.”

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