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Community College Proves that Schools Don't Need Textbooks

Open education resources have been around for more than a decade, and schools are finally starting to run with it.

The international foot race is about to begin! Ready… set… wait… none of the Americans are wearing shoes. This is the state of education today. Many students can’t afford textbooks, so they go without, and the entire nation suffers the costs of an under-educated populace. But the open educational resources (OER) movement is picking up speed, and Virginia's Tidewater Community College (TCC) is proving that new models of open education can work.

TCC calls it the Z-Degree program, where the z stands for zero, as in zero textbooks. Launched in Fall 2013, the Z-Degree program uses OER to allow students a 25 percent savings on the first two years of a degree in business administration. Linda Williams, a professor of business administration and project lead, said she’s never claimed that OEM is the best model, but points out that the results they’ve pioneered speak for themselves.

“It’s made a huge difference in terms of retention and success with our students,” Williams said. “What we have found from the data from two years in pilot is that we have a reduction in the number of students who drop the course, we find that they withdraw at a lower percentage than the non-Z counterparts, and they have succeeded at a rate equal to or slightly better than the non-Z counterpart classes.”

American education is riddled with problems, and textbooks are one of them, for several reasons, the first being cost. The cost of textbooks has outpaced the cost of tuition by more than 500 percent over the past 30 years. For a country that talks a lot about lowering barriers for the common man to succeed, the high cost of learning materials is curious. 

“Those students who need community college the most often are the most economically constrained,” Williams said. “Our students spent approximately $12 million on textbooks over the course of three semesters, and almost 61 percent of that was financial aid dollars.”

Students who receive financial aid for textbooks typically receive vouchers that are only useable at school bookstores, which is usually the most expensive place a person can buy books. In other words, the federal government and taxpayers are subsidizing the textbook industry, which is almost completely comprised of just four companies, and depriving Americans of education in the process. Money that is meant to promote American education is being squandered and everyone – from teachers to taxpayers – is complicit.

“That’s crazy,” Williams said. “That’s like telling someone they get SNAP benefits, but the only place they can spend it is Whole Foods, like the most expensive grocery store in town. We know that 72 percent of students admit to not having purchased the required materials for a course and over 90 percent of them admitted it had a negative effect on their performance in the course.”

Open education has completely changed their teachers’ approach to education, Williams explained. “When we launched our pilot in the Fall of 2013, for the first time since I’ve been teaching, I looked out at my class and I knew that every student had everything that they needed in order to be successful on day one,” she recalled. “At some point, we made this decision to lock this knowledge behind a paywall.” 

And because textbooks are big business – billions yearly – textbooks tend to be written broadly. Publishers are looking for the widest possible audience. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, Williams said, but the problem is that teachers are using materials that aren’t necessarily suited for their students.

“I did it,” she said. “I mean, I’m guilty. You’d be like, ‘Ok, next is chapter 7.’ And I’d think, why am I teaching this? Well, it’s because it’s between chapter 6 and 8.”

The school called the Z-degree a pilot because officials didn’t want to over-commit to something they were new at, said Daniel DeMarte, vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer. But the school expects the program will be expanded, as it has succeeded where no other school has before.

“We have proven that it’s possible to put together an entire degree program [using OER],” DeMarte said. “That’s not been done. I have a responsibility as a leader to cut down cost. I can’t stand hearing from students that they couldn’t take the course because the book was too much or that they took the course without the book.”

To design the course, the material was built around what the students needed to learn, DeMarte explained. “We identified in the pilot mode the 21 courses we would use, we took everything out of those courses except the learning outcomes, and then those courses were rebuilt with OER matched to the outcome,” he said. “So now it’s common to hear our faculty say that they are more efficient.”

The school is also able to continually improve its offerings by linking analytics to the content that students are studying. All of the educational resources are contained within the college’s learning management system (LMS), so professors can demonstrate how well their course is working to meet their students’ educational goals and make adjustments as needed.

“We’re able to focus on student success in ways we never have before, both from the faculty perspective and the student perspective,” DeMarte said. “It changes the conversation. We’re talking about outcomes now, not about the textbook.”

That other schools have not yet built programs around OER is a little unusual, given that OER like that provided by MIT’s OpenCourseWare portal has been available since 2002. Textbook publishers have added digital offerings to accompany their textbooks, but nothing resembling the spirit of the open education movement. Digital textbooks aren’t free, and students often lose access to content at the end of the semester. DeMarte said he thinks publishers are waiting for open education to pass as a fad.

”We come out of pilot the end of this current semester,” he said, “and I’m confident we have put all the key pieces in place that we can sustain this and we can grow on it and we can show others how to do that.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.