Nonprofit Provides University Students with Digital Texts

In the wake of the coronavirus, a nonprofit education technology initiative is allowing students and faculty to access many materials and services without cost through the end of the semester.

by Brittany Britto, Houston Chronicle / March 24, 2020
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(TNS) — Many colleges are resuming classes online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the transition from in-person courses to online isn’t an easy one for many students and faculty. One Rice University-based organization is looking to help.

Rice’s OpenStax, a nonprofit education technology initiative that offers educational services and around 40 free textbooks online, is allowing students and faculty to access many materials and services without cost through the end of the semester.

The organization — founded by a Rice professor who hoped that reducing the cost of textbooks would stop students from dropping out — began waiving subscription fees for its educational services about two weeks ago when classes began more rapidly moving online, said OpenStax managing editor Daniel Williamson.

Online services from OpenStax include a tutoring program that allows faculty to assign homework and quizzes, which costs $10 per semester per person, and Rover, a platform that allows students to show their work problems and get step-by-step feedback, which costs $22, Williamson said.

The OpenStax textbooks, peer-reviewed by professors, are available in digital PDF versions and cheaper $30 print editions. It’s supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation.

“We’re trying to do our best to at least make sure there’s no price tag attached to the transition.” Williamson said, and the need for such a support system is already evident.

More than 3 million students across the country are using OpenStax this semester, including more than 370,000 from Texas and 90,164 from the greater Houston area. More than 7,600 institutions use the system. The company has saved students about $900 million since publishing its first textbook in 2012, according to its data.

2017 study by market research firm Wakefield Research found that 85 percent of the college and university students in the United States who were surveyed had either waited to buy course materials until after the first day of class or did not purchase the necessary materials — a 5 percent jump from the research company’s 2016 study.

Nearly all the students said the cost was the reason for not buying their books and half admitted their grades suffered as a result, according to the study.

Within the past week alone, “we have definitely seen a huge shift,” Williamson said. “This rapid shift to digital learning or social distance learning has exposed a lot of inequities in our higher ed system.”

Coronavirus focing higher education institutions to go online for coursework has helped OpenStax officials identify which colleges and students have experience or plans in place when it comes to online learning — and which ones don’t.

More than 30,000 students and more than 500 faculty have signed up for OpenStax accounts in the past five days, giving them access to its services, downloadable PDF versions of books, as well as useful note-taking and highlighting features, Williamson said. The OpenStax team of 85 have also been actively working to address the growing needs of faculty.

They’ve posted a blog about quickly transitioning to online learning, which has been read by thousands of professors, many of whom have asked for more information, Williamson said. The initiative also hosted a webinar that maxed out with more than 400 attendees, and OpenStax is offering one-on-one support sessions for faculty members seeking assistance and aiming to get their courses online.

“One of the most important things to dive into is how faculty are really concerned that they are keeping the approaches equitable,” Williamson said, which has been OpenStax’s focus since its inception — to improve access and learning for everyone.

Many students are returning home, but might have poor internet connection, which makes live-streaming a class or proctoring exams difficult, Williams said.

“How do we make sure students have the resources and tools that they need, if they are coming from a (more) disadvantaged background… than (their) more resourced peers?” Williams said. “That’s going to be a big challenge, even coming from a K-12 space.”

For students, the concern has been keeping the costs of an online education down. The costs of textbooks are known to be a deterrent.

“If you’re asked to buy a textbook, this could [be] the difference between you succeeding and dropping out of college,” Williamson said.

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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