Prepping a Zero Textbook Cost Course

Hi, everyone! Produced this for my fellow faculty, and I thought others might benefit from it. -Matt

Why prioritize textbook costs?

Textbooks are a social equity issue. Every student should have first-day access to all of the materials needed to succeed in the course. When my colleagues and I at Virginia schools of social work asked, “How do social work students in Virginia deal with textbook costs?” we found:

63.9% take on more work​ ; 50.3% delay purchasing required books 
51.0% take out more loans​ ; 37.7% engage in piracy
25.8% do not visit family over breaks; 22.6% skip a meal​

Here is a representative quote from our qualitative responses: 
“In this past week, I couldn’t fill my car up with gas or buy groceries because I spent $500+ in textbooks, and I still have one more I can’t buy yet because I don’t get [paid] till Friday…The social work books are wonderful and VERY useful but I can’t afford food right now because of them.” (DeCarlo & Vandergrift, 2019). 

This is a pretty common finding across all disciplines in higher education, just ask…Cengage.

Zero textbook cost courses

There are many different ways to eliminate out-of-pocket costs for the required materials for your courses. One designer might favor a different book chapter or journal article per week, combining open and commercially published materials, depending on what fits best for their learning objectives. Another designer might use a combination of library licensed materials like documentaries, graphic novels, journal articles…plus a few chapters from different textbooks. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and you are the expert on how best to design your course. If the library does not have a license or copy of something you need, please notify your chair. The library is not able to get a license for recent textbooks, though, since publishers do not sell them to libraries–only to students at a ridiculous markup.

Open educational resources

OER are freely and publicly available teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. For example, instructors may download the material, tailor it to one’s course, save a copy locally to share with one’s students and share it with public stakeholders. 

OER can include textbooks, course materials and full courses, modules, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge. For example, redesigning a statistics course to use Jamovi or JASP instead of SPSS or Stata is adopting OER, since JASP and Jamovi use open copyright licenses and are free to use and remix while students will never afford access to SPSS or Stata after graduation. 

It is important to note that OER are not better than other types of resources. When comparing their use versus traditional resources, their impact on student learning is the same but it achieves those outcomes at no out-of-pocket cost to students. See these two most recent meta-analyses of empirical studies of OER: Clinton & Khan, 2019; Hilton, 2020.

Only adopt materials you think will work for your course. It’s your eye for the quality of any educational resource that is most important, not the copyright license. You do not have to adopt an open textbook or OER in your course, even if one is available. For example, I know of three human development open textbooks I would never adopt in SWK 510…and one good one I plan to adopt. I’m happy to help you look!

When people talk about OER, they are mostly talking about open textbooks. Open textbooks are in use on the majority of campuses in the United States, though only about 15-20% of courses. Here is where to find them: 

Open textbooks are unlikely to be one-for-one replacements for commercial textbooks at the graduate level; you may find an open textbook to be helpful as a supplemental resource, for a specific module, or for a single lesson. However, I have found a few open textbooks that have completely replaced (with some editing and customization) a commercial textbook I previously used. 

I’ve copied this graphic below on why I like and prefer to adopt OER in my syllabi. Mostly, it provides me greater control over what my students read the first time, the ability to localize and customize content, and tailor everything to learning goals and class activities. 

I cannot adopt OER in many courses I teach because there are no good OER for me to use. 

Library-licensed resources

While openly licensed content is not available for many graduate social work topics, there are many sources of content that are free to students available through the library. Because we are a virtual program, please prioritize materials that can be digitally accessed by students via the library’s website or a PDF uploaded by the professor to the Canvas course.

If you previously assigned a commercial textbook or book when teaching this course, check whether the library has purchased an ebook license for it. If it is not in the library, notify your chair and we can explore licensing options with the library, but it is not a guarantee that the library can purchase it. Ebook licenses are a weird gray area in which what is a textbook (not license-able) and book (license-able) varies based on the financial interest of the publisher. 

That said, there are many textbooks or academic books that are part of the library’s ebook collection. For example, we have the full-text PDF of Trauma Stewardship from 2009…a bit old, but also a seminal textbook I’d use at least part of. Check what we have! If you adopt a library-licensed ebook, please include the permalink in your syllabus and Canvas course.

Journal articles are expected to be included as part of course syllabi. If we do not have access to a social work journal, please notify your chair to touch base with the library. They have asked us for journals that are lacking in our collections.

A chapter or two from commercial books (fair use)

If you need a PDF of a chapter or two of a commercial book, but you cannot access it in the library, please email your chair. If there is no replacement for Chapter 6 in a famous textbook…we can assign Chapter 6 in the famous textbook without students needing to buy it. 

Free internet resources

Please use whatever materials you think are best, even if they are “nontraditional.” That includes textbooks, books, articles, blogs, videos, or any materials available on the internet. 

Readings as asynchronous learning activities

Social annotation of text (in Google Drive)

Share a link to an article or book PDF in your Google Drive with students via Canvas. Then, all students can mark up the same document in lieu of a discussion board

You can also turn any web text document into a shareable Google Document that students can collaboratively annotate

Social annotation of video in (VideoANT)

You can also annotate YouTube videos using VideoANT. 

I have asked students to use hashtags like #stats, link out to the open internet, reflect on personal experiences, and a variety of other prompts based on the lesson that week.

Annotations have made excellent fodder for early class discussion, resolving questions, eliciting how students define and apply key terms, etc. I still have some students who only open the document long enough to comment, so it certainly doesn’t guarantee genuine engagement.

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