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Colleges aim to eliminate textbooks
Barton looks at Open Educational Resources
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Imagine completing a 60-hour college degree without buying a single textbook.

The so-called Z-Degree may be a reality in the future, according to Barton Community College’s Director of Learning Services Lee Miller. Until then, Barton is moving toward the national trend of replacing expensive college textbooks with free or low-cost Open Educational Resources (OER).

Miller spoke about OER recently during a strategic planning report to the Barton Community College Board of Trustees.

Open Educational Resources are teaching materials that reside in the public domain or may be developed for free use with certain restrictions, such as attribution. OER may include full courses, materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos and tests. The digital resources are freely accessible and may be available under open licenses that permit their use and remixing for educational purposes.

This is a shift from the days when educators decided what course expectations and outcomes should be and then chose a textbook that best met their needs. Under that scenario, teachers or students could hunt for supplemental materials but the publisher provided what amounted to an “unstated outline” for the course.

OER creates more options for course design, Miller said. Under the most basic Creative Common Licensure, attribution of the content’s creator is required but the instructor is free to strip the textbook down to its bones and then rebuild it — keeping what the instructor wants, discarding what isn’t wanted and adding something different from other OER sources if desired.

Instructors write their own outlines based on the outcomes or competencies they want to teach.

The materials are peer-reviewed, quality resources, Miller said.

“This is really positive all the way around.”

“This is the future,” said Mike Johnson, chairman of Barton’s board of trustees.

Benefits to students are:

• Affordability - No-cost or low-cost

• Access - Immediate access to materials

• Achievement - Increased opportunity for student success

Benefits to instructors are:

• Academic freedom - Option for more creativity and innovation in the classroom

• Knowledge of everyone having the needed material

• Opportunities to re-engage in the curriculum assessment and redesign as needed

There are challenges, starting with encouraging and empowering instructors to make the first steps into moving to OER, Miller said.

Barton status

At Barton Community College, an OER guide has been completed and the review structure is ready to be piloted. Barton instructors are developing five online OER courses:

• General Psychology - instructor Mark Knapp

• College Algebra - Ange Davied

• Public Speaking - Alissa Duncan and Angela Lewis

• American History to 1877 - Mike Cox

• English Composition I - Melissa Regney and Karley Little

How is it sustained?

Higher education institutions are developing OER in response to customer demand and, in some cases, state legislation that requires it. One such law recently went into effect in Virginia. Nearly half of all U.S. state have considered OER legislation. reports that Rice University has its own OER publisher, OpenStax, meeting the rising trend of institutional-supported adoption of OER. 

“More than 2.2 million college students used the service last year, according to the organization, saving an estimated $177 million compared to what it would have cost to use commercial textbooks, which average $78 each,” EdScoop reported in February. “Nearly half of all higher education institutions use the service, from large universities to small community colleges.”

A 2018 article by Josh Moody in Forbes asks the question “When it comes to free textbooks ... who pays?” OER results in slumping sales at campus bookstores but reduces one of the top financial stresses for students, after tuition. One study finds that using OER can improve student outcomes and may also increase tuition income in the process.

Institutions haven’t completely solved the challenge of how they can sustain providing free materials. Some are tapping grant funding, and there may be OER courseware fees that can be charged to students. In 2018, Congress approved $5 million for the development of OER programs.

Barton President Dr. Carl Heilman says OER is one of many innovations that colleges will see in the future. With online options, there will also be courses that students enter and exit at their own pace, independent of traditional semesters. There are now accelerated programs where it is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree in 12 months.