Moving forward on OER

By Fran LeFort

A Michigan college is close to offering zero-cost textbook associate degrees

Accustomed to budgeting hundreds of dollars for textbooks each semester, Ana Andrade found a nice surprise in her inbox after registering for fall 2020 classes. The simple message from her instructor: No need to purchase the official textbook because a free online resource is offered.

Since fall 2017 when the zero-cost textbook program known as open educational resources (OER) was introduced, Washtenaw Community College (WCC) students have saved nearly $9 million in WCC’s 47 courses offering OER. The Michigan college now offers four entirely no-cost textbook business certificates, and it is close to offering zero-cost textbook associate degrees, dubbed “Z Degrees.”

Between her microbiology class and a biology course the next semester, Andrade estimates she saved at least $200 through the free online textbook program.

“I have to work to pay my school, so for me it was a very good help at that time. With books, tuition, transportation and other costs of college, it’s great to have more tools to help students with all the expenses,” says Andrade, who plans to graduate from WCC’s nursing program next year. An international student from Brazil, Andrade first enrolled at WCC in 2018.

A growing expense

OER is a growing movement in higher education and was highlighted during Open Education Week March 7-11. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the costs of textbooks have increased 88% between 2006 and 2016. Such figures are “staggering and not sustainable,” says Molly Ledermann, professional librarian who leads WCC’s Bailey Library OER faculty cohorts dedicated to the effort.

The cost of purchasing textbooks can range $300 to $500 each semester, depending on the number and types of courses. In some cases, even with WCC’s low tuition of $95 per credit hour for in-district students, a textbook could potentially exceed tuition fees. Nationally, during the 2020-2021 school year, the average cost of books and supplies for students at public two-year colleges was $1,460, according to the College Board.

“It’s no easy feat to develop a quality, free online textbook to cover all the content standards for a class,” adds Ledermann. “Faculty members work in cohorts with librarians, developing original content, scouring open resources, mixing and matching graphics and other types of information, and navigating through the issues of attributions and copyrights.”

A leader in this effort among community colleges in Michigan, WCC’s OER program is one of three two-year institutions statewide highlighted by the Michigan OER Network.

“We are committed to providing an excellent education for all students, no matter their socioeconomic background. Our growing OER efforts help tremendously with affordability, and students can be assured that the quality and content of the materials is exceptional,” says WCC President Rose B. Bellanca.

Savings, access and convenience

OERs benefit students and faculty alike. Instructors tailor content to curriculum so that all students have materials on the first day of classes. The department of math, science and engineering technology has greatly impacted students with free online textbook courses. From Fall 2019 to Winter 2022, students have saved $2.97 million across 752 sections of OER chemistry, biology, geology and math courses at WCC.

“It’s a win-win, and I’m so happy people are embracing it. When people see these staggering numbers, they see how we are making a difference,” says Victor Vega, dean of the math, science and engineering technology department.

While the primary goal is cost savings, students point to other benefits such as the ease of access and convenience of not having to haul or store large, heavy textbooks.

Emily Chaney, who is pursuing an associate degree in childhood education, estimates she saved about $150 in a child care professional course last fall.

“It was really beneficial and relieved a lot of stress. It was easier for me to complete my readings on time because I could access the book from anywhere, including logging in on my phone when the kids were napping,” says Chaney, who is a mother of three children under age three and works full time.

Ledermann praises faculty members dedicated to helping students.

“One of the amazing things about WCC is our faculty are passionate about their students and they want to save them money. They see the choices students have to make between buying a pair of glasses or fixing a car or purchasing a textbook,” she says.

This article was originally posted in CC Daily.

Fran LeFort

is director of media relations at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan.