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Affordable education initiatives surpass $1 million in savings for students

Libraries and Provost’s Office join forces for fourth consecutive year

By Nick Kneer, strategic communications coordinator

A joint effort to reduce the cost of course materials for Miami University students recently reached a major milestone: $1 million in student savings.

The Affordable Learning/Open Educational Resources Committee supports faculty in adopting free or low-cost alternatives to more expensive textbooks and materials, and is currently co-chaired by librarian and Scholarly Communications Coordinator Carla Myers and Associate Provost Jeffrey Wanko. The committee originated in 2016 out of affordability efforts by then-Libraries staff member Jennifer Bazely and Associate Provost Carolyn Haynes, with support from former Provost Phyllis Callahan and Dean of Libraries Jerome Conley. Myers became involved with the work when she joined Miami University in 2017.

Changes implemented by faculty participating in the program over the years total more than $1 million in savings for students while maintaining or even enhancing the quality of instruction.

Key to the efforts are open educational resources (OER), which are teaching, learning, and research materials available in the public domain or published through an open license allowing free access, use, adaptation, and sharing. OER range from specialized lesson modules on single topics to fully-fledged textbooks suitable for entire courses, and are typically freely available online from anywhere in the world.

The initiative goes beyond simply replacing materials with open-access works, however. For many courses, an appropriate OER textbook may simply not exist yet, While the committee intends to pilot a program to support faculty members who wish to create OER later this academic year, other methods of cost reduction also bear fruit.

Among them is the course pack consultation service, through which Myers assists faculty to identify alternative materials for readings and other supplementary course materials that carry no cost for students. By drawing on resources in the public domain, under open-access licenses, within the Libraries’ existing subscriptions, or that can be made available under the fair use provision found in U.S. copyright law, Myers boasts a “98% success rate” for cutting students’ costs without sacrificing instructional quality. “Typically, we’re able to bring the cost of the course pack from something like $80 per student down to $25, for example,” said Myers.

The alternate textbook service takes the course pack consultation concept further by replacing the textbook itself with freely available resources. Working closely with Myers, faculty have successfully created customized textbooks for five different courses to date, eliminating the textbook costs entirely for students in those courses.

Enhancing instruction

The benefits don’t end with cost-saving, however. Faculty and students involved in courses using OER found themselves particularly well-positioned for remote learning when the COVID-19 pandemic made the shift necessary.

“Having my course materials in Canvas was very beneficial to students who found themselves without access to their books or without access to the library to get books,” said Nicole Thesz, professor of German at Miami. “This was particularly important in the summer, but then in the fall, many students told me that books they ordered simply weren’t arriving or were significantly delayed.”

In other cases, creating a custom alternative textbook for a course can better serve instruction.

“In teaching social work courses, it’s difficult to find a textbook — or even a combination of textbooks — to meet the requirements of the curriculum,” said Anne Roma, assistant clinical professor in the College of Education, Health, and Society. “I’d use up to three textbooks, but half of each book wouldn’t be relevant. I couldn’t in good conscience ask students to spend that much for one course.”

And, as Roma notes, textbooks often can’t keep up with the pace of change in the field. “What we talk about shifts all the time according to the research, politics, what’s happening in the world, changing laws… it’s just not responsible to use a textbook that took a few years to write, a few years to publish, and now has been on the shelf for one or two years. It doesn’t equip our students with the most up-to-date information and ways to respond.”

After working with Myers to pull together a tailor-made selection of materials from a variety of sources — books, podcasts, articles, videos, documentaries, and more — Roma reports “the class is much better — it’s much more responsive. Because I’m not making them buy a bunch of textbooks, I can be creative in class rather than feel compelled to cover what’s in the textbook.”

From workshop to partnership

The Affordable Learning/Open Educational Resources Committee advances the use of OER on Miami’s campus through workshops and services for faculty designed to help instructors explore, adopt, and even create these open-access instructional materials.

Faculty members of various disciplines across Miami have participated in the initiatives, which are open to all instructors at the university. Professional development funds incentivize and compensate faculty who successfully participate in the three workshops:

  • OER Explore: Participate in a two-hour overview workshop and review an OER for possible use in a course
  • OER Adopt: Identify, adopt, and evaluate an OER for a course
  • OER Create: Evaluate the need for an OER in a course and then receive support to develop, use, and assess it.

Those efforts registered a signature achievement in 2018 when the BUS 101 Foundations of Business course — a First-Year Integrated Core course enrolling an estimated 600 students per semester — adopted an OER in place of a traditional textbook. Cindy Oakenfull, assistant lecturer within the Farmer School of Business and the faculty lead for BUS 101, collaborated with Myers and then-business librarian Susan Hurst during the summer to identify and customize the OER.

“Identifying and evaluating these resources certainly isn’t a small commitment, particularly with something like the OER Adopt initiative where you transition to a new textbook entirely,” Myers said. For faculty ready to take the plunge, however, they’ll find a committed partner.

And, as the cost savings to students pass the $1 million mark, the investment speaks for itself.

Faculty members interested in learning more about participating in affordable learning and open educational resources initiatives can contact Carla Myers or read more on the Academic Affairs website.