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Affordable Learning Georgia

Increasing equity and improving pedagogy through open educational resources

By Ben Dedman

August 5, 2020

For years, Judy Orton Grissett kept costs down for her psychology students by letting them purchase used copies of older textbooks. But after the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was released in 2013, every student in her abnormal psychology course had to buy a new edition. Prices skyrocketed.

“The textbook that I used was close to $300,” said Grissett, assistant professor of psychology at Georgia Southwestern State University. “I stood at the front of the class and told them, ‘This is your textbook, and this is how much it costs.’ I felt terrible.”

That semester, Grissett did everything she could to make it affordable for her students, putting one copy on reserve in the library and keeping another in her office for students to read.

“After that, I thought, ‘Never again,’” she said.

Grissett started using open educational resources (OER)—free, open-access, peer-reviewed textbooks—to help students keep costs down.

“On the first day of class, when I tell them, ‘This is going to be an open textbook,’ and explain a little bit of what that is—it’s online, it’s free—you just see this wave of relief go across the classroom,” Grissett said.

Making Learning Affordable in Georgia

Since 2014, the University System of Georgia’s Affordable Learning Georgia (ALG) project has funded opportunities for faculty like Grissett to adopt OER in their courses.

Before ALG, the state system’s online library, GALILEO, worked with individual libraries to develop institutional repositories of open-access materials. But everything changed after 2012, when Rice University in Texas launched its OpenStax initiative with free, online, peer-reviewed textbooks that could be accessed by faculty around the world. Soon after, GALILEO launched ALG, funding two-person campus teams comprising a faculty member and either an instructional designer or librarian who work together to implement open materials in a course.

“Our mission is to make textbooks more affordable in Georgia and to ensure the adoption of these materials into our courses,” said Lucy Harrison, executive director of GALILEO.

At first, ALG wanted campus teams to adapt or revise existing OpenStax materials to meet the needs of the course’s specific learning outcomes. “Instead, there was a lot of creation of new open educational resources, too,” said Jeffrey Gallant, program director of Affordable Learning Georgia.

ALG and several grantees have partnered with the University of North Georgia Press to publish digital editions of new textbooks and supporting materials such as video series, quizzes, and tests. Unlike traditional textbooks, which usually pay authors through royalties, open textbooks are funded up front by the grants. The press still maintains the same rigorous peer-review process for open textbooks as for paid materials.

Having the “stamp” showing that their work is grant-funded, or that they partnered with the university press to publish a peer-reviewed open textbook, “seems to be a necessary hurdle for some faculty” going through tenure and promotion processes, Gallant said. “If you’re simply creating open materials and releasing them, they may be the best in the world, but if they haven’t gone through that peer-review process, they may not get recognized as such in your portfolio.”

In ALG’s first six years, the savings for students have been massive. Between 2014 and 2020, the state system’s textbook affordability programs have saved $82.5 million in textbook costs. Within ALG grants specifically, which are implemented at all twenty-six University System of Georgia institutions, students have saved $69.2 million. Now, about 23 percent of all course sections across the university system are using low- or no-cost materials.

Advancing Equity through Affordability

As higher education grapples with the ongoing pandemic, economic recession, and protests against racial injustice, students’ educational experience is evolving. They are learning online or in hybrid courses. Many lack access to necessary technology or have lost the jobs that pay for their education.

In this context, “having access to course materials from the first day of class, provided by virtue of your enrollment in the class, is just more important than ever,” said Megan L. Mittelstadt, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia (UGA).

In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Nicholas B. Colvard, C. Edward Watson, and Hyojin Park examined six years of data on UGA instructors who switched from paid materials to OpenStax textbooks. While OER significantly increased grades and decreased failure/withdrawal rates for students overall, the scope of OER benefits became visible when the data was disaggregated by low-income status (using Pell-grant eligibility), part-time enrollment, and race.

“One might imagine that those who often can’t afford textbooks would be those who would benefit the most by OER’s introduction into a course,” said C. Edward Watson, coauthor of the report and former director of the UGA Center for Teaching and Learning (now the Chief Information Officer and Vice President for Quality, Pedagogy, and States Initiatives at AAC&U). “By disaggregating by various demographics, such as Pell eligibility, and making appropriate comparisons, we indeed found that all students having access to free course textbooks tended to help level the academic playing field. This, of course, is beyond the already compelling affordability argument inherent in the free textbook notion.”

Quality and Cost Matter

On the first day of an introductory psychology class in 2017, Grissett told her students that they could help her select textbooks for the next semester. Students reviewed the first chapters of two free textbooks and two traditional textbooks that cost between $100 and $200.

When students reviewed the textbooks without knowing the costs, “they tended to lean toward the non-open” books, Grissett said. They rated the non-open books as having better visual aids and images, as open textbooks often lack the sophisticated visual elements that traditional publishers can afford.

But when she provided students with an information page that included the author, publisher, year of publication, and cost, “they were taken aback,” she said. When asked if the new information changed their preference, “most of them put a free one at the top.”

This study, published in 2020 by Grissett and her coauthor Feng-Ru Sheu, was titled “Quality and Cost Matter.” It found that students make a cost-benefit analysis about their educational materials. If the more expensive texts would help them succeed in the class, some students seemed willing to pay.

To address the gap in reading experience between open and traditional texts, ALG is working to make OER—mostly created as PDF and Word documents—more readable and accessible. OpenALG, a new responsive reading platform developed by Manifold, features a dark mode, alters font size to fit different screens, and encourages student participation through highlighting and annotation that can be done either individually or as a group. ALG will implement the new platform on all texts going forward while retrofitting it to older texts.

To increase awareness about accessibility issues, ALG administrators are working to develop resources and supports to help faculty develop OER and course materials with accessibility in mind.

“Through these accessibility initiatives, we are ensuring that all students have equitable access to the materials coming out of our programs,” said Tiffani Reardon, program manager for ALG.

Though the quality of the reading experience is improving, fears about the quality of content can still prevent faculty from adopting OER in classes. Like her students, Grissett urges all faculty to do a careful cost-benefit analysis of any texts before using them.

“The number one concern I hear from faculty about OER is, ‘Well, they’re not as good. It’s free and you get what you pay for,’” Grissett said. “That’s just not necessarily the case. There are bad open textbooks, and there are bad non-open textbooks. We need to look at the content of the material before we make any general assumptions about which is better.”

At UGA, word-of-mouth success stories have helped to break down these misconceptions that low cost means low quality.

“The vast majority of faculty say that their OER textbook is at least as high quality, if not better quality, than the commercial textbook that they were previously using,” Mittelstadt said, referencing another study conducted at UGA.

Faculty especially appreciate the ease of editing and tailoring open materials to their specific course and student population.

“You can take this textbook as it exists now, revise and remix it to suit your course sequence, and [the grants will] pay you for the time that it takes to do that,” Mittelstadt said. “You’ll be left with a textbook customized to you, your class, and your student population.”

The “Five Rs” of OER—retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute—allow faculty to improve and grow their pedagogy from semester to semester. A new movement toward “OER-enabled pedagogy” is helping faculty avoid “disposable, one-and done assignments that don’t go anywhere” after the end of a course, Grissett said.

OER enables students to create something new by collaborating to develop a textbook, enrich an existing book, or create wikis and other online supporting materials. By working to create these materials, students learn technical skills while building their information literacy as they evaluate the credibility of the materials they’re using and creating, since ancillary materials usually do not undergo the same formal peer review process as textbooks.

In her own classes, Grissett often has students develop exams, requiring them to read and understand the content before creating questions that ask for definitions or the application of course concepts. Students feel a sense of buy-in when their questions end up on the final version of the test.

OER-enabled assignments “improve the base of open educational resources while using open educational resources,” Grissett said, providing a win-win for students and faculty. “Students can put a project, like a website, on their resume and share it with a future employer. The faculty member can benefit from it because now they have more material to use for the next class.”

To help faculty maintain rigor and quality in their switch to OER, ALG is starting a virtual speaker series this fall featuring former grantees who will discuss their projects, explore the benefits and challenges of OER, and answer questions.

“The ALG featured speaker series comes in response to multiple requests from faculty for examples of successful projects,” Reardon said. “We often show completed projects from our perspective at ALG, but the grantee’s perspective and insight into the OER development process will be invaluable to a faculty member considering their own project.”

At UGA, the Center for Teaching and Learning and University Libraries cosponsor an annual institute in which Center for Teaching and Learning staff, librarians, and grant program officers work directly with faculty to get questions answered, hone ideas for their projects, and provide future support as they begin to apply for grants.

“Librarians play a big role in making sure that faculty can find previously existing resources to incorporate, and instructional designers help to create quality content that’s accessible, that makes sense to the learner, and that includes ancillary materials like quizzes or practice problems,” said Philip Bishop, UGA’s senior coordinator of learning technology and an ALG “champion” on campus.

Each campus participating in ALG nominates three affordability advocates—a library champion, a faculty champion, and a design champion—who mentor faculty grantees as they adopt OER.

“The ALG champions team creates a well-rounded advocacy and support system for OER implementation on our campuses,” Reardon said.

Scaling Up Savings across Courses, Departments, and Universities

While initial ALG projects focused on large sections of general education courses to maximize student savings, new efforts are scaling up OER implementation across course sequences, majors, and departments.

So far, six departments across the state have committed to implementing open resources across all sections of large-enrollment courses, and a few departments, like the Department of Information Technology at Kennesaw State University, have redesigned entire bachelor’s and master’s degree programs to use OER or low-cost materials.

At Georgia Southwestern State University, Grissett’s successful implementation of an OpenStax textbook in 2014 led her entire psychology and sociology department to adopt open textbooks. “It has happened in other departments the same way—a faculty member is interested in open textbooks, and then eventually the entire department will adopt it,” she said.

At the state level, the University System of Georgia’s eCore program provides online core curriculum courses that can be taken by anyone enrolled within the system. The courses use open textbooks, so far saving students $13 million.

Another project, eMajor, brings several institutions together to create online majors that anyone enrolled in the system can take. Faculty in one eMajor, organizational leadership, have partnered with the University of North Georgia Press and subject matter experts from several campuses to create a series of nine open, peer-reviewed textbooks.

“That’ll be our first fully online, fully OER degree where you can literally take every single class deliberately designed around OER,” Harrison said.

At UGA, the data on OER’s effects on equity have made affordability an institution-wide priority. In 2018, the university abolished all supplementary course fees, removing barriers to taking lab or studio classes. The university’s new strategic plan also includes mandates to track key performance indicators and increase the use of open educational resources.

But the grants continue to be the biggest incentives for faculty and departments to scale up the implementation of OER, providing stipends or course releases to help faculty find the time to create or revise materials.

Faculty sometimes do a lot of work to curate resources, Grissett said. Traditional paid textbooks often come with ancillary materials like questions, assignments, and tests that the open books might lack. “It can be almost an overwhelming amount of work just to transform a single course.”

In addition to system-level grants, the UGA provost’s office offers affordable course materials grants “aimed at individual faculty who’d like to convert their courses” to using affordable or open resources. In the past two years, UGA grants have supported twenty faculty projects, and ALG grants have supported eleven projects.

In one multiyear project, UGA’s Calculus I course converted to open resources. “It saved students $334,020 in textbook costs just in the fall and spring semester last year,” Mittelstadt said.

UGA students have become powerful advocates of affordability initiatives, with surveys showing overwhelming support for free or low-cost materials. When ALG administrators visited UGA, student government leaders explained that, with planning, they would be able to complete most of their bachelor’s degree—and especially general education and introductory classes—entirely using OER.

“You just have to know which professors are doing it,” Harrison said.

The conversation between the student leaders and administrators inspired a 2018 system-wide mandate that required universities to update registration systems to show which courses use free or low-cost (under $40) materials.

This has acted as “a kind of peer pressure” to bring faculty on board with OER, Harrison said. “If there are two courses right next to each other, and the student can see one of them is zero cost in textbooks, and the other one is $300, guess which one they’re going to pick.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.