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Toward textbook economies
University Libraries and the Center for Teaching Excellence strive to bring down the cost of course materials
In 2015, with funding from the Provost’s office, the University Libraries started awarding grants to faculty to retool their courses by replacing high-cost textbooks with free or low-cost alternatives. Thirteen faculty applied to the “Affordable Course Materials Initiative” in the first year and 10—from eight departments, including computer science, German, and theater, as well as the Law School—received $2,000 each to develop new reading lists and other instructional components.
Every recipient was assigned a project manager—either Margaret Cohen, head of the Libraries’ educational initiatives and research services, or Jane Morris, head librarian for scholarly communications and research. And a subject specialist librarian was designated to help find materials within the University’s resources—which include 4.3 million microforms, more than 623,000 ebooks, some 53,000 videos, nearly 45,000 ejournals, 3,546 paper subscriptions, and 759 specialty databases (ranging from United Nations documents to African-American poetry to 19th-century British newspapers).
The librarians also pointed faculty to public-domain resources and open-source repositories such as OpenStax, the four-year-old nonprofit initiative based at Rice University that is producing peer-reviewed, open-license college textbooks.
Boston College’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), which studies and promotes innovative teaching practices—including the effective use of technology—is a participant in the “Affordable” endeavor. CTE staff work with the faculty on ways to present and deliver their new materials—utilizing technologies such as MediaKron, a web-based platform developed within CTE for organizing and customizing digital text, still images, audio, and video.
Pieter VanderWerf, assistant professor of the practice of operations management at the Carroll School of Management, received a 2015 grant to revise his course “Management Science,” a core requirement for all management students. Instead of the previously required textbook, which sells for $147, VanderWerf assembled some 30 articles from scholarly journals and magazines, as well as spreadsheets and problem sets (some contributed by fellow faculty, others VanderWerf’s creations). He shared these materials with his students on Canvas, an interactive course management platform. After testing the new approach with two class sections in 2015, the department rolled it out this fall for all seven sections, more than 250 students. The cost to each student: zero.
For his class “Corporations,” an introduction to the law of business organizations, associate professor of law Brian Quinn replaced the previous textbook ($197, plus a $35 statutory supplement) with a new casebook that he wrote, Introduction to the Law of Corporations: Cases & Materials. Students can either read it online for free or purchase an on-demand printed version from Amazon for $30, of which $10 goes to the Law School’s annual fund.
In addition to the savings for students, Quinn likes that “the book reflects my course; it’s simple to navigate—we start in the beginning and read until the end. No more skipping around different chapters.” He adds, “Updating the book annually is extremely easy.”
A second round of 10 grants was awarded in spring 2016. When the first two installments of grants are fully implemented, they will affect more than 1,000 students. The hope, says Morris, is to see the initiative expand into disciplines such as the hard sciences and economics, where textbooks are particularly expensive.