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UTEP Initiative Seeks Low-Cost Options for Textbooks

Last Updated on September 03, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Originally published September 03, 2019

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Communications

An interdisciplinary cohort of faculty members from The University of Texas at El Paso will work with select UTEP staff from fall 2019 through fall 2020 to develop Open Educational Resources (OER) or other affordable instructional materials that eventually could save students millions of dollars.

Steve Varela, associate director of UTEP’s Academic Technologies, and Angela Lucero, scholarly communication librarian are part of a team working to develop Open Educational Resources. Photo J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications
Steve Varela, associate director of UTEP’s Academic Technologies, and Angela Lucero, scholarly communication librarian are part of a team working to develop Open Educational Resources. Photo J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

The University encourages tenured, tenure-track and adjunct faculty members who use expensive textbooks and teach medium- to large-enrollment or gateway courses to apply for this year’s TeachTech Research Cohort. Selected faculty will work with staff from Creative Studios (CS) and the University Library to identify and evaluate materials that they could use to transform one of their courses. OERs have no or limited copyright restrictions so users may use, modify and redistribute the material.

In early September 2019, a committee of UTEP faculty as well as CS and library representatives will select at least 12 instructors to be part of the Affordable Course Materials Initiative, where they will research ways to replace commercial instructional resources with other more affordable materials that they would curate or create through TeachTech. Some examples include videos and digital interactions.

Steve Varela, associate director of UTEP’s Academic Technologies, which oversees Creative Studios, said the applicants must demonstrate a commitment to do the necessary research for course development. He added that the program would give each participant a $3,000 stipend to buy technology and/or to attend related conferences.

Varela said that organizers conducted a survey that found that the high price of various textbooks made it difficult for some students to purchase them in time for the start of class. This often led to poor student outcomes, he said.

“Students who can access their materials on the first day of class are more likely to complete the course and be successful at it,” Varela said. “Overall, we hope to design courses where students will pay zero cost beyond tuition and fees. On top of that, all the information produced – from components to an entire course – will be shared.”

Varela said Texas Senate Bill 810 is part of the reason behind the initiative. The measure, which was signed into law in June 2017, directed state organizations to develop and support the use of OERs in higher education. Some related data has shown that use of OER materials have led to successful student outcomes to include degree completion.

Varela’s cohort co-director is Angela Lucero, scholarly communication librarian. She will lead the team of research librarians who will help the faculty members to discover and curate scholarly resources – print, digital and video – they need to achieve their instructional goals.

To create a baseline, Lucero researched 20 University courses, student enrollment in those courses from fall 2016 through fall 2018, and the assigned textbooks and their prices in fall 2018 at the University Bookstore. The most expensive book was $327.50. With some caveats, Lucero estimated that the amount spent on required textbooks during that period was approximately $11.3 million. She said the price of textbooks has increased more than three times the rate of inflation during the last 13 years, according to a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics study. Additional research showed that 66 percent of students have decided at some point that a textbook was too expensive to buy.

“We can help (faculty) find the appropriate materials,” Lucero said. “One of our focuses is affordability. We know how to explore library resources and how to use them within the ‘fair use’ of copyright so that people will not have to pay extra for them. This is a big project and that’s our role. We’ll guide the professors through the process.”

Lucero said that the program would share the information it collects through the library’s Digital Commons website, an institutional repository for the University’s academic and creative output. TeachTech will license the educational materials created through the program under an agreement such as the Creative Commons (CC BY) attribution copyright that allows users to copy, enhance and distribute content.

“It will be difficult to measure success after one year,” she said. “There will be challenges, but we do not plan to shy away from any of them. We want to engage everyone.”

Among those who are excited at the prospect of less expensive textbooks is Wilmarie Velazquez, a senior accounting major who still grimaces at the memory of when she bought her first accounting hardcover for $230. The married mother of three young children said she used to wait to buy textbooks until a few weeks into the class even though it would put her behind. It was a matter of cost.

The El Paso native said that her household has sacrificed family vacations and delayed the purchase of a dishwasher so she could have book money. The first-generation college student, who expects to earn her degree in May 2020 and enter the workforce, said she often would like to buy an earlier edition of a textbook that is less expensive, but is concerned it may not have the information the instructor wants to cover. Through the years, she has learned to shop around for less expensive textbooks and to rent digital books.

Velazquez called the UTEP faculty initiative a great concept that could benefit many UTEP students, especially those like her who take out student loans to help finance their education.

“I think that’s an awesome idea,” Velasquez said. “I’m positive students are going to love it.”

While cost is an important aspect of this effort, another focal point is to create material that will engage students, said William Robertson, Ph.D., professor of teacher education and a Provost’s Office representative on the TeachTech committee. The educator is a longtime proponent of using alternative materials such as videos and graphic novels to maintain student interest. He pointed out that Lucero had assembled an “impressive” library team to assist faculty.

Robertson, who was part of TeachTech’s second cohort during the 2018-19 academic year, said he would strongly consider the practitioners’ standpoint during the selection process.

“I am mostly interested in how the project will be used for teaching,” said Robertson, who was interested in whether the materials would be freely available, and if the teachers could modify and integrate them quickly. “You have to have a plan.”

Organizers expect to test their results during the fall 2020 semester, but it is possible that parts of it could launch as early as spring 2020.

This is UTEP’s third TeachTech cohort. Academic Technologies started the program to encourage faculty members to integrate technology into their courses. The teacher collaborates with a CS instructional technologist during the academic year to consider options, develop a plan and then present their work at the end of the spring semester.