Librarians Support Faculty Adoption of Open Digital Textbooks

Each year, the rising cost of a college education puts pressure on students and families trying to make ends meet. Tuition is rising faster than inflation, and the added costs of meal plans, room and board, and other incidentals mean that many students have to make difficult choices about where to allocate funds.

What can an individual faculty member do to help stem the tide of rising costs? One area is with free and low-cost digital textbooks. The savings could be significant: according to data from The College Board, traditional textbooks cost an average of $1,220 per year for undergraduates at private nonprofit colleges and universities. Some students are able to lower these costs by renting or buying used books, but the logistical burden can be significant. The quest for cheaper alternatives may mean that students don’t have their books by the start of class or opt not to purchase a book at all. The legwork required to find the best deal adds unnecessary stress and worry that can hinder academic growth.

The Quest for Alternatives

Chris Diaz, Digital Publishing Librarian, and Lauren McKeen, Communication Studies Librarian, are among a growing group of staff who are working to help provide faculty with options to keep textbook and instructional material costs affordable for all Northwestern students. They are working to advance the adoption of Open Educational Resources (OERs), which include a range of freely accessible, open license digital assets including digital textbooks. As Northwestern is approaching its goal of admitting an incoming class that is at least 20% Pell eligible, the time is ripe for experimentation with methods to make a Northwestern education affordable for all students.

Diaz became involved in OERs during his time as a collections librarian at National Louis University.

“I noticed that textbooks were the primary reasons students came to the library," said Diaz. "Faculty would also come to see if we had ebooks available.”

At Northwestern, Diaz set out to gauge OER interest on campus and wanted to provide publishing services to faculty who were looking to develop their own. He soon connected with McKeen who, as the subject specialist for the Communication Studies Department, has had an increasing number of students and faculty ask about e-textbooks. After attending an open textbook training in Chicago, McKeen and Diaz partnered to spread the word--first with colleagues at the Library, and ultimately with Northwestern faculty.

“The session helped me to bring the community up to speed,” said Diaz. “I was trained on how to find OERs, how to use them, how to navigate licenses, and how to incentivize faculty to use these resources.”

Open Textbook Network

The work of OER advocates at Northwestern is starting to pay off. Northwestern has recently joined the Open Textbook Network (OTN)—hosted by University of Minnesota—by way of the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois. As part of this network, Northwestern is able to collaborate and share resources with over 600 campuses, ranging from community colleges to research universities. Beyond creating a library of open materials, OTN provides textbook reviews and training opportunities for librarians and learning engineers.

As part of OTN, Northwestern now has access to approximately 400 books in the Network’s Open Textbook Library. All books curated by OTN have been vetted for academic quality and have been reviewed by at least two member institutions before inclusion on the list. At present, most open textbooks are designed for 1st and 2nd year courses, with more options available for the sciences as opposed to the humanities, but this list is expected to grow.

Northwestern’s entrance into OTN coincides with wider University conversations and actions addressing student resource affordability. In fall 2017 the University launched a pilot program to loan STEM textbooks to low-income first-year students. The Books for Cats program--though limited in initial scope--is likely to expand as the University continues to look at low-cost alternatives for a broader range of course materials and fees, including online course packs, clickers, access codes, and lab equipment.

Momentum around course affordability led to the creation of the Affordable Instructional Resources workgroup. The group, including McKeen and Diaz from the Library, also includes members from Student Advising, Office of the Provost, the Bookstore, and others, plans to meet with the Undergraduate Council this summer and with the hopes of translating a broad University dialogue into action.

Securing Support

When asked about next steps for his work, Diaz said that he’s starting to transition from spreading awareness to securing more support for his efforts.

“We are looking at options to incentivize faculty to take the time to adopt or consider more affordable alternatives to their textbooks," said Diaz. "It would also support faculty and encourage them to take time to review existing open textbooks; the more faculty we have reviewing these materials, the more weight they have.”

Although Diaz and McKeen have made progress, they face challenges with facilitating widespread adoption of OERs at Northwestern. Beyond navigating communications across a decentralized organization, it will take time to build capacity.

“It seems simple, but it is challenging identifying the faculty who would be interested in these materials,” said Diaz.

McKeen added, “There’s also always going to be some pushback around potential issues of academic freedom, and if there is even a need for open resources in general. We never want to push faculty to adopt OERs if they are not interested.”

The next hurdle is to find the resources needed to spread awareness and incentivize change. One way that universities have brought faculty on board is by providing grants to compensate them for taking the time to redesign their courses to use open materials through the library. Grant funding could also support panels or workshops to systematically build capacity and grow a community of faculty adopters. Diaz says that Northwestern would not be alone if we went that route and that, “longstanding faculty grant programs at Temple, UMass Amherst, and other schools provide models of successful steps towards moving away from traditional textbooks.”

Regardless of the challenges, Diaz and McKeen feel confident that the campus dialogue around affordability will bring more stakeholders to the table.

“This is a topic that is increasingly resonating with students,” said Diaz. “During Associated Student Government’s Money Matters Week in April, students wrote out their stories and anecdotes about what textbook affordability means to them.” Chris and his colleagues built off of these stories and have been trying to learn more about the student experience. “Over the past few quarters we staffed a textbook lookup station during the first few weeks of class and it was helpful for us to learn more about how students make decisions about getting textbooks for class.”

Interested in learning more about Open Educational Resources or adopting materials for your course? Contact Chris Diaz, Digital Publishing Librarian, at