Can free textbooks do the job?

A group of BYU professors and students have published seven related research papers this year that attempt to answer whether you learn as much in a course that uses free, open-access textbooks.

More than $1,000 a year for books and supplies alone: the number can be discouraging—if not completely prohibitive—to students considering enrolling in college or working to complete their degrees. Research shows that low-income high school grads are less likely to enroll in college, and those who make it through to enrollment are less likely to graduate.

 

“There are people who have to choose between buying a textbook for a class and buying food for their child,” said John Hilton III, a professor of ancient scripture and member of BYU’s Open Education Group, which received the 2017 Excellence in Research Award from the international Open Education Consortium.

 

With an increasing number of educators and students using open educational resources (OER), which are both free and open access, an interdisciplinary faculty trio at BYU created a group to explore the challenges and benefits of the OER movement in higher ed. Since 2011, the team, joined by several students, has published more than 30 peer-reviewed papers—with seven just in the last year.

 

Their findings were key in the California State legislature’s decision in 2016 to allocate $5 million toward OER development and an additional $180 million in discretionary professional development funds for community colleges to work on OER. The state’s budget and education team recommended the allocations after reviewing BYU’s research, said Hal Plotkin, a former senior policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Education who helped organize the study session at the request of the governor’s office. The legislature accepted the recommendations, and the money will now help fund zero-textbook-cost degrees at 20 California community colleges.

 

“The moral imperative here is really compelling,” said Lane Fischer, BYU counseling psychology and special education chair and member of the Open Education Group. “The college students in America who can least afford textbooks are most benefitted from this research.”

 

Fischer points out that community colleges, where the cost of textbooks can comprise up to 50 percent of educational costs, are mostly populated by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Heavy textbook costs can slow their progress toward graduation or even increase dropout rates.

 

Though helping a vulnerable population seems like a no-brainer, said Hilton, “faculty don’t want to give students a poor academic experience just to save money.” So as OER use has grown, he added, “We’ve wanted to empirically assess whether it was making a positive impact academically for students.”

 

One of their recent key findings? Students whose classes used OER generally matched the learning outcomes of students using textbooks. That’s key, because “if we can look at it and objectively say, they’ll do as well with a free textbook versus a $150 book, that’s a real win for students,” said group member David Wiley, adjunct faculty in instructional psychology and technology.

 

Other recent findings:

 

  • Before passing a class, students must first stick it out past the add/drop and withdraw dates. Those three hurdles—passing the add/drop date, passing the withdraw date, then passing the class—comprise what researchers call the course-throughput rate. BYU’s group found that the course-throughput rate for students who used OER was 6 percent higher than that for students who used traditional textbooks. By maintaining their momentum, said Fischer, these students “get to their degree faster. If it takes them three or four years of poverty to get their associate’s, they may not make it.”

  • One hang-up institutions and educators have with implementing OER is its cost. In another study, BYU’s team explored the cost a community college incurs when students drop a course and found that the costs of implementing OER could be offset largely by the decreasing numbers of students dropping courses. “There’s always hardship with change,” said Hilton. “Nobody’s opposed to students saving money, but they’ll say it’s going to take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, maybe it won’t be very good. But if we can do more sophisticated analyses, we can find out ways for this to be most successful.”

 

In the meantime, both Hilton and Fischer are using OER in some of their classes, and in a recent survey, they found that 91 percent of BYU faculty members would also be willing to use OER materials.

 

PhD student Tarah Ikahihifo has been working with BYU’s Open Education Group for a year. Ultimately, she hopes, “OER could revolutionize higher education and provide better opportunities for people who might otherwise drop out. If you can alleviate one source of stress or tension, maybe that’s the relief they need to be motivated to keep going.”

 

Writer: Andrea Christensen

Photo Credit: Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo