Granite Geek: Cheaper, ‘open’ textbooks are a goal in N.H. community college system

Monitor staff
Published: 9/3/2019 12:03:26 PM

As thousands of students settle in on college campuses in New Hampshire, they will be facing a sometimes unexpected expense: Textbooks. Lots of big, costly, mandatory textbooks.

Or maybe not.

“Our goal is not to get to 100% lower-cost or no-cost materials in every class … sometimes it’s not possible. But in those big gateway courses that everybody takes – Intro to Sociology, Computing 101, Psychology 101 – there’s no reason students should be spending $250 on a textbook,” said Jennifer Cournoyer, Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at River Valley Community College in Claremont.

Cournoyer has been spearheading an initiative launched by the state community college system known as OER (this is education, so you’ve got to have an acronym). It stands for Open Education Resources, with “open” in the sense of open software.

The idea is to help academic departments or professors provide students with materials that are shareable and malleable and cheap. That often involves digital material – text, video, audio, whatever – available for free or very little and which can be tweaked or updated by professors to suit each year’s program, unlike those 500-page texts that you lugged to one course and then couldn’t sell at second-hand bookstores because a new edition had come out.

Lecturers and professors have been using OER on their own here and there, but the system is becoming more organized so it can be more easily implemented, Cournoyer said.

“It won’t ever become an edict or mandate. There are going to be courses that will never fall into this in the foreseeable future – you can’t be a nursing student without buying a new stethoscope. … It’s really up to the faculty or the department, just like with buying textbooks,” she said.

“We see people creating their own textbooks and releasing it under a Creative Commons license,” which allows it to be used by others within certain limits. “It makes for a lot more freedom. Instead of: you pay for this whole textbook but you’re only reading chapters 1, 10 and 47 and that’s it – as an open text I can take what I want, get rid of everything else, maybe move chapter 8 to be the first chapter because that’s the way I teach.”

Reducing student cost is a big deal, especially in the community college system.

“One of the things we know is that some students struggle to make ends meet. There are students choosing, ‘Do I pay the rent, or do I buy a textbook? ‘ ” she said. “We want to minimize extra costs and keep the quality of education at a high standard.”

The initiative is targeting a total savings of $500,000 to students in the seven community colleges, including NHTI in Concord. There were roughly 26,000 students enrolled in the two-year programs last academic year.

The idea of OER is, understandably, not popular with textbook publishers, who argue that high prices cover the time and expertise needed to create high-quality works that serve a relatively limited audience. But Cournoyer said they’re bending, pointing to some rent-a-text deals.

“The OER movement is far enough along that publishers have come to the conclusion that we’re not stopping this train, and they’ve been trying to get on board,” she said. “They realize we have is a system that’s unsustainable; they’ve built this model that isn’t going to work forever. They’re scrambling to figure out how to make it work.”

New Hampshire is behind the curve on this open-resource push, which exists in many states: There are multiple news reports of school systems around the country claiming that students saved hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. There’s even a loose national consortium, with an online presence at www.oercommons.org, acting as a clearinghouse for shareable material.

Cournoyer said OER is progressing fast in New Hampshire because, unusually, it is being driven from above.

“OER has always been a grassroots initiative. Basically, publishers keep gouging students with new editions every year with nothing changing, people look for alternatives, and it worked its way up to administration,” she said. “In New Hampshire it has really gone the other way. The administration is the one saying, ‘Hey we should be looking into this,’ starting last year with mini-grants for faculty.

“In our favor is the fact that we do have a lot of administrative support and are not re-inventing the wheel at the point, so we are able to move pretty rapidly in this,” Cournoyer said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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