Money-saving program for students passes $10 million milestone

Open-access learning materials have saved students millions as UND ramps up OER research, advocacy

UND archival image.

Ten million dollars’ worth of savings to students.

That’s a milestone UND passed recently, thanks to a program that lets faculty substitute high-quality but inexpensive materials for expensive textbooks.

At the University of North Dakota, savings to students have reached almost $11 million through the implementation of open educational resources: open source textbooks, learning materials and various teaching aids that can be accessed and distributed.

Stephanie Walker

Stephanie Walker, dean of libraries and information resources, has been leading the effort for nearly five years at UND. The University’s working group consisting of faculty, library staff, Teaching Transformation and Development Academy staff and student government representatives have provided thousands of dollars in grants to professors and instructors to modify their curricula for the use of open source materials.

Grant funding has come from the State of North Dakota, UND’s Office of the Provost and UND’s student government. The steady embrace of open educational resources, more commonly referred to as OERs, has benefitted students in an environment where textbook costs have increased exponentially in the past decade.

Walker reported that OERs have heavily impacted UND courses in calculus, engineering, psychology and political science, though materials can be found and implemented for a variety of subjects – especially in first and second-year introductory courses, where information tends to be more generalized.

“Every September, I talk to students who didn’t realize how much their textbooks were going to cost,” said Walker, who’s been an advocate for open-access resources since the early 2000s. “They might not have $800 more, that month, after paying tuition and rent.”

In establishing a faculty research fellowship around OERs, Walker hopes more data can show not only a more accurate figure around the value of OERs at UND, but also how such resources can help the University retain students.

Low cost, low withdrawals

Before Virginia Clinton was an assistant professor in education, health and behavior at the College of Education & Human Development, she was instructing in the psychology department at UND.

As she taught hundreds of students in Introduction to Psychology, the cost of the textbook drew the most complaints.

“And it was a fair complaint,” said Clinton, noting that a new copy of the book cost $250. “Then the publisher switched to loose-leaf copies, which was supposedly to save students money, but students would say they couldn’t sell back their loose-leaf versions.”

That’s when Clinton started looking into open-source textbook options for her class.

“Many sizable universities across the country have developed OER collections and share them in various ways, either through their own publishing platform or sometimes through a library,” Walker said. “These resources are being published through universities, so the quality has typically been thoroughly reviewed.”

Clinton eventually settled on a psychology text available through Rice University’s nonprofit called OpenStax. Then Clinton wanted to create a study of the transition: how would changing the textbook, and nothing else, affect student learning or perceptions of the course?

“In that study, I found that student perceptions of the two textbooks – the OpenStax version and the commercial version – were generally the same, and student learning outcomes were consistent, as well,” Clinton told UND Today. “But the class-withdrawal rate was much lower.”

In a subsequent meta-analysis based on 70,000 students around the use of OERs, Clinton found a lower overall withdrawal rate for OER-based courses.

“There was statistically no difference for learning outcomes, other than withdrawals and the price students were paying for textbooks,” she said.

In her own study with the Introduction to Psychology course, she came across comments that the commercial textbooks were prettier to look at. Of course, commercial publishers can more easily afford graphic artists, but there wasn’t evidence that pleasant visuals changed anything about learning outcomes.

“You can flat-out ask students if they would pay $200 more for that textbook and the resounding answer is ‘no,’” Clinton remarked.

Virginia Clinton, assistant professor in education, health and behavior at UND, conducts research on reading comprehension and OERs. She is now the Univeristy’s first OER Faculty Fellow, a role through which she’ll be conducting more research about OER effectiveness. UND archival image.

Poised for advocacy

UND is far and away the state’s leader in its use of OERs, according to Walker. By bringing Clinton aboard as the University’s first OER Faculty Fellow, the hope is to more specifically research OERs and bring their advocacy beyond UND’s campus.

Even amid a relative shutdown of on-campus activity, Walker still hopes to host regularly scheduled OER workshops for faculty who are considering reshaping their courses to accommodate open-access texts and resources. There are also UND faculty who have been able to develop their own forms of OERs, which Walker said have been hosted on UND’s Scholarly Commons – the University’s research repository.

In most cases, such as with Clinton’s selection of a psychology text, instructors download the documents from other sources; make adjustments to more accurately fit their curriculum; then post what students need to access on Blackboard.

Clinton said she also conducted an experiment in coordination with other psychology faculty where one section of students was encouraged to print out the textbook chapters, and received instructions on how to do so. The other section was taught how to access the material through Adobe Reader, where students could read it reading electronically.

UND Today readers may recall Clinton’s feature from July 2019 in which another meta-analysis she conducted revealed slightly better comprehension levels for information read on paper.

“In that analysis, the results were derived from very controlled lab experiments that were all based on volunteer participants in specific environments, where the only difference was paper or screen,” she said. “This study looking at textbooks was affected far more by complicated, real-world factors, such as motivation and preparation – things that matter when you have real grades going on.”

Of 170 students, only two read the OER from paper, despite active suggestions to do so. Even with the difference of medium, the UND researchers found no difference in grades. Clinton suggested that the real-world factors of her own study tipped the scales from what was found in her meta-analysis of screen versus paper reading.

Through her fellowship extending into the summer months, Clinton aims to complete more studies examining student variables in relation to OER effectiveness, especially in relation to withdrawal rates. Her role also will be one of advocacy, having already presented at a North Dakota University System meeting at the beginning of March. Clinton will also be working with faculty in the CEHD to survey faculty system-wide about their motivation to adopt OERs.

“Our intention is to gain an understanding of why somebody chooses an OER, or why someone chooses commercial resources,” Clinton said. “If we know better what kind of motivation is involved, we can better target outreach.”