Some students spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks every semester, but the Textbook Cost Savings Act of 2017, sponsored by Maryland state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, could help students save a lot of that money.
The bill would provide a $100,000 grant to the University System of Maryland's William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation to promote the use of open source materials in place of traditional textbooks. The money would be used to foster the use of open education resources, or OERs, among the system's 12 institutions, said MJ Bishop, director of the Kirwan Center.
The bill will have its hearing in the Maryland House of Delegates on Feb. 21.
An OER is any educational resource — such as a scholarly article — that is openly licensed and oftentimes free, Bishop said. If passed, the act would provide funding for the center to scale up the Maryland Open Source Textbook Initiative, a project that began in 2013 to promote OER use in classrooms. Between spring 2014 and fall 2016, the initiative has involved faculty teaching more than 60 courses at 14 public institutions in Maryland, saving students an estimated $1 million since the project's inception, according to the system website.
"It's really revolutionary," Rosapepe said.
Bishop said the grant will be used to create a central OER repository to share with all system institutions, as well as provide mini grants to universities to promote adoption of OERs in classrooms. The grant will also help to fund project management and instructional design staff, allowing faculty to create their own open source textbooks and design their courses around OERs.
"I'm finding that faculty are very eager to do what they can to save their students money," Bishop said.
Some professors at this university have already made the switch to OERs. Lecturer Scott Roberts made an online textbook for PSYC100: Introduction to Psychology in 2010 after he became annoyed with new editions of the published textbook — which he said essentially contained the same content with different page numbers.
"It occurred to me that everything they were learning was probably available somewhere online if someone would take the time to find it," Roberts said.
Roberts curated his textbook, called OpenPSYC, with articles and videos he found online. About 1300 students use it every year, he said. In a survey of PSYC100 students, most said they preferred the free materials, although some said they would have preferred a physical textbook even if they had to pay for it, Roberts said.
Senior biology major Evan Lieberman said he is seeing more classes use free, accessible materials in place of traditional textbooks.
"A lot of teachers acknowledge that textbooks are very expensive and this is a really good opportunity to cut costs for students," Lieberman said.
Julie Rosenberg, a freshman communication major, said she has taken classes that use OERs and prefers the less expensive option.
"Sometimes it's a little bit more difficult to read it off the computer, but it's definitely better than spending money on textbooks," Rosenberg said.
Roberts said the grant would be helpful for faculty because it could provide support and resources to help them create their own open source textbooks. This help would be beneficial, he added, because curating online materials takes a lot of time and effort.
Samuel Kerstein, a philosophy professor, agreed compiling online resources for a class is a lot of work.
"It's time-consuming," Kerstein said, who said it took weeks for him to compile resources for his PHIL209A class, Bioethics: Regulating Right and Wrong.
Kerstein, who has used online resources for his classes for the past 10 years, said finding resources can be challenging because he wants articles that are "rigorous, but aren't unnecessarily complex" for students. He added that he wants to save his students some money and that he also enjoys the freedom to pick the materials he uses for his class.
The grant could be helpful for faculty who want to use OERs but don't necessarily have the time or the level of expertise to create their own, Kerstein said. But the $100,000 grant is not a lot of money when it's dispersed around all system institutions, he added.
Bishop admitted the $100,000 grant is not enough to accomplish all the center's goals at such a large scale; however, she said the act would be a sign of support from the Maryland legislature and be helpful when the initiative tries to get funding from national foundations, such as the Hewlett Foundation or the Gates Foundation.
Although Roberts and Kerstein have successfully used online materials in their courses, some faculty might not believe in the quality of these resources.
"There's the perception among some that just because it's OER, it may be of lower quality," Gary White, the associate dean for public services at the University of Maryland Libraries, said.
This negative perception of OERs is one of the biggest challenges the movement toward open source materials faces, White said. However, the grant will help to incentivize more faculty to use OERs.
"There's always some cynicism in the idea that something that's free could be as good as something you pay a lot of money for," Roberts said.
While Roberts believes OpenPSYC is sufficient for the learning goals in PSYC100, he said OERs might not be realistic for every course. Sometimes a published textbook might have valuable content that can't be found online, Roberts said.
Julia Aepfelbacher, a senior individual studies major, doesn't believe online resources suffer any loss of quality.
"The fact that it's online doesn't make it a bad resource," Aepfelbacher said. "[Faculty] are fully capable of choosing a good source without discriminating against online sources."
The University Libraries website has an online guide for faculty interested in using OERs. The site, created by the Student Government Association, University Libraries and the Office of the Provost, includes information on creating an open source textbook and has links to existing open source textbooks that professors can use for their courses.
The SGA passed a resolution in support of the bill during their Feb. 1 meeting, and White said the libraries have also been working with the SGA to help make textbooks more affordable. MaryPIRG has also been involved in efforts to decrease the cost of textbooks, presenting its textbook affordability campaign to White House Executives in Feb. 2016.
Roberts said another challenge OERs face at this university is that some faculty are not aware of all the resources available online that could be used for courses.
"If we really want faculty to consider this, we need to help them see what's out there," Roberts said.