More and more colleges opt out of going ‘by the book’

Students use computer stations in the library of Pierce Community College in Lakewood, August 9. Source materials for most classes are all online, with no conventional textbooks.
Students use computer stations in the library of Pierce Community College in Lakewood, August 9. Source materials for most classes are all online, with no conventional textbooks.

RoxAnne Simon estimates she spent $1,800 on textbooks during her first year at Pierce College in 2013. That was more than a full quarter of classes cost.

Simon, a recent Pierce College graduate and last year’s student president at the Puyallup campus, said the high cost can force tough choices for students who don’t have the financial aid to cover textbooks.

“With some lower-income students, especially, the question is, ‘Do I buy my book, or do I pay my rent?’” said Simon, who helped promote textbook affordability when she was in student government.

A growing movement in higher education aims to ensure that textbooks and other course materials are within more students’ reach. The solution: “open educational resources.”

These digital texts are usually written and compiled by professors and registered under open license agreements. They are made available online through digital libraries and databases for other professors to adapt to their curriculum, often at no cost to students.

It’s a movement that has taken hold at Pierce College, whose Joint Base Lewis-McChord campus in 2015 became the third community college in the country to offer a two-year degree students can complete without ever having to purchase a textbook. By Pierce College’s own estimate, the average student at one of its three campuses pays $1,100 a year on textbooks these days.

“When I heard about (open textbooks), I thought, ‘This makes perfect sense,’ ” said Denise Yochum, president of the Pierce College system. “This is the work we’ve been trying to do for a really long time.”

Now, with a $100,000 grant from Achieving the Dream, a national community college reform network, Pierce College will add a second open textbook degree pathway, this one in prenursing. The program will be ready for enrollment starting in winter 2017 and available at all three of the college’s campuses.

Yochum said the benefits extend beyond cost.

Digital textbooks can keep up with emerging information more quickly, said Janine Hornung, a natural sciences professor at Pierce College. As our understanding of the sciences changes and new discoveries and ideas occur, traditional textbooks can be outdated before they ever land in students’ hands.

At the same time, many math concepts haven’t changed in hundreds of years, and yet publishers continue to put out new editions of textbooks, and students are still expected to buy them.

“And that’s just silly,” West said.

With digital textbooks, it’s easy for professors to move chapters around and add or remove whatever material they’d like, Yochum said.

“It puts them back to being the expert in the classroom,” she said. “Curating the learning material takes it out of publishers’ hands and rejuvenates the art of teaching.”

And that’s something that students notice, West said.

“Not only do (students) talk about saving money, which is what we expected, but how the courses are actually changing the way they learn,” she said. “They’re more interested in the material, it’s more timely, and the students talk about how they know teachers and the school care about them because they’re thinking about cost.”

Other higher education institutions in Pierce County also are using digital textbooks for some courses, among them Tacoma Community College, University of Washington Tacoma and Bates Technical College. But Pierce is out front in offering entire degrees.

Pierce faculty make use of the Open Course Library, a project funded by the state and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It went live in 2013 with textbooks, syllabuses, additional reading materials and assessments for 81 of the state’s most highly-enrolled courses. It is available to students at no or low cost.

Mark Jenkins, director of eLearning for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, said the state’s early adoption of digital textbooks has made students and faculty receptive to using them.

“We don’t have to go out and beg people to be a part of (open textbooks),” he said. “That’s a level of maturity very few states have.”

Yochum said she feels digital textbook programs work best when they are voluntary, especially because developing open textbook curricula often comes with so much extra legwork and unpaid overtime for professors.

“I hope colleges will see (open textbooks) as an innovation, and colleges will get involved on their own without it being mandated,” Yochum said. “It works better that way.”

Hannah Shirley: @itshannah7