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Alt-Textbook: Saving Students Money and Supporting Innovative Teaching

What costs more—a cross-country plane ticket or a year’s worth of college textbooks? To the chagrin of students everywhere, it turns out that books have the bigger price tag.

College students spend, on average, $1,200 annually on textbooks and required reading. That tab has leapt more than 800% over the last three decades, outpacing increases in home prices and health care costs. 

Students feel this hurt in more than just their wallets. Textbook inflation has priced many students out of full participation in higher education. More than half of all students simply don’t buy the textbook, even when doing so presents a “significant concern” about their ability to complete the course, according to a recent PIRG survey. One student in ten fails a course each semester because he or she cannot afford the required books.

Textbook price inflation has outpaced that of other consumer price index measures. Image courtesy of AEI.

Increasingly, students are choosing courses—and even majors—based on textbook cost rather than preference or substance. But what choice do students have? In a publishing market without competition, textbook publishers essentially treat students as market captives.

The NCSU Libraries offers an alternative for students and faculty through its Alt-Textbook project. Alt-Textbook offers small grants to faculty to create free alternatives to traditional commercial textbooks. Inspired by open textbook projects at Temple University and UMass-Amherst, and the success of a physics textbook pilot, the NCSU Libraries developed a mini-grant approach to encourage faculty to adopt or create open textbooks or other open educational resources [OERs]. 

“Academic libraries have always been a powerful way to reduce the financial burden of a university education by pooling key resources for everyone to use,”  Vice Provost & Director of Libraries Susan Nutter wrote when the Alt-Textbook project was announced. “The Alt-Textbook grants offer an innovative way to leverage that advantage in the digital age, while at the same time giving our faculty a powerful tool to tailor their course materials to the exact needs of their students.”

In addition to cost-savings the textbook alternatives would yield, the NCSU Libraries hoped to make this project an engine for pedagogical innovation by empowering faculty to adopt or create materials tailored to their own teaching style. With initial funding generously provided by a competitive grant from the NC State University Foundation, the project uses a team-based approach to connect librarians from disparate departments with stakeholders across the institution and puts a premium on innovation, challenging instructors to “do something a traditional textbook can't.”

Tackling the problem

The rise in textbook prices is a problem that the Libraries has been engaged with for many years, working to raise awareness about an industry that treats students as market captives rather than valued customers. To that end, the Libraries has engaged in a number of initiatives aimed at reducing the financial burden textbooks place on students and their families.

In 2009, the Libraries combined forces with the University Bookstores to ensure that at least one copy of every required textbook for each class at NC State would be available for free on reserve at the Libraries. The following year, the Libraries partnered with the Physics Department to provide free access to the required textbook for introductory Physics 211 and 212. The Libraries paid around $1,500 for access to Physics Fundamentals, saving the 1,300 enrolled students tens of thousands of dollars. 

In addition to producing high cost and post-graduation debt, the current one-size-fits-all commercial textbook market also compromises the quality of instruction. Many faculty members find that the fixed, textual nature of books can be a barrier to cooperative, grounded learning. This was the case for Dr. Maria Gallardo-Williams, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Organic Laboratories at NC State. She wanted to improve instruction in laboratory practices to the over 3,000 students who enroll in organic chemistry labs at the university each year. Traditionally, students would listen to a lecture and then perform experiments guided by a printed lab manual. Gallardo-Williams sought a better way to engage students in grounded, innovative learning. 

A solution: Alt-Textbooks

Gallardo-Williams submitted an Alt-Textbook proposal to the NCSU Libraries, which gathered a diverse peer review team of students, faculty members, campus partners, and librarians to evaluate grant applications. The team chose her proposal, and eight others, from a robust set of projects.

In 2012, Gallardo-Williams had experimented with the idea of having students develop videos to demonstrate lab techniques. Using a DELTA grant, she worked with students to design an initial set of videos in subsequent lab classes.  Gallardo-Williams managed the project, but students worked together to design and create the videos, using social media to crowdsource topics and design, and Libraries equipment to record and produce each video. 

Gallardo Williams and her students filmed short videos to teach laboratory practices.

The resulting product, Student-Made Audiovisuals Reinforcing Techniques (S.M.A.R.T.), is a set of short videos created by undergraduate students to supplement learning in organic chemistry labs. The videos enhance laboratory instruction in a way that printed lab manuals cannot and are available for anyone to use. They also produced measurable improvements in student learning. “The videos showed me exactly what I needed to be doing physically in the lab,” one student wrote. “They showed me the right way to complete the lab safely.”

This video about microscale distillation is one of nearly thirty videos created by Gallardo-Williams and her students as part of the Alt-Textbook grant.

In its first year, the Alt-Textbook project has funded courses for 13 faculty members in eight departments, saving NC State students over $200,000 in textbook costs. It has also enabled transformative teaching in a variety of contexts.

Dr. Janell Moretz uses her “Diversity and Inclusion in PRTM” Alt-Textbook to fill a curriculum gap that no textbook currently covers. Dr. Michael Evans hosts his “Multimedia Design and Apps in Instruction” Alt-Textbook on Github, facilitating online, connected, and participatory learning that would be impossible in a static, print textbook. The Alt-Textbook project has been an impetus for faculty to engage with emerging technologies, pedagogical innovation, and library resources to create student-focused learning and research resources outside of the traditional print textbook environment.

As Juliana Kocsis wrote, describing her “Foreign Languages and Literature” Alt-Textbook, “The project is providing a great opportunity to re-envision course goals and materials and give ESL students authentic materials to work with. It's also provided an opportunity for these students to become more active in the learning process, as some of the assignments ask students to generate materials for the unit they are interested in learning and talking about.”

The Alt-Textbook initiative has been funded for a second cycle and the new proposals promise even more transformative instruction.