The free textbook example

Madison Christian was expecting to shell out at least $100 for a textbook when she enrolled in her molecular biology course last spring. Textbooks for introductory science courses can be big and expensive — as much as $300 for a single course.

So, the fourth-year scientific illustration student was thrilled to learn the course’s online textbook was free. She wasn’t the only one. The class of 180 students erupted in applause when instructor Jason Lang shared the news.

In other large-enrollment courses at UGA, faculty are opting for free, online textbooks to help students save money and to improve teaching.

The University System of Georgia (USG) has been a nationwide leader in using free online textbooks, and UGA has been at the forefront of those efforts, helping its students save more than $2.5 million since 2013. The bulk of that effort has come through a partnership with nonprofit publisher OpenStax.

Last year, OpenStax named USG the No. 1 system nationwide at saving students money through adoption of its free digital college textbooks.

The inclination to use free information to help students learn is noble but not easy to pull off. With the Internet awash with free but dubious information, it’s no wonder “free” is often synonymous with low quality.

Meanwhile, traditionally published textbooks are expensive for a reason: They require expertise and time. Good textbooks cover a breadth of complicated material and translate it into something digestible. Once written, they are rigorously reviewed by other experts in the field to root out any errors.

OpenStax, based at Rice University, uses this same process to produce its textbooks. But with funding from philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, OpenStax can cover the cost of writing and reviewing material and then offer it to the public for free. So far, OpenStax’s subjects range from biology to American history, sociology to anatomy.

UGA was an early adopter of these free textbooks and pioneered how large institutions can focus their implementation on scale and improving learning outcomes.

“We hold up the University of Georgia and the University System of Georgia as exemplars that the rest of the country should follow,” says David Harris, OpenStax’s editor-in-chief.

In terms of scalability, UGA has focused this effort around maximizing student savings.

“When we’re thinking about how to save students the most money, it’s a simple equation: Which courses have the highest enrollment and use an expensive textbook?” asked Eddie Watson, the former director of UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and now an associate vice president for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

In practice, that means focusing on general education courses that can seat hundreds of students at time. To date, more than 24,000 students have benefitted from that change.

The real challenge, though, is to lower costs for students while continuing to raise the standard of education.

Changing textbooks is like giving a syllabus a makeover. Instructors have to realign lessons and lectures with the layout of the new book. So, UGA has treated this transition as an opportunity to improve how a class is taught. When faculty elect to adopt these free textbooks, CTL works with faculty to inject evidenced-based teaching practices into the syllabus.

Peggy Brickman, a professor of plant biology, and her colleagues teach general education biology courses taken by nearly 2,000 students a year. When she adopted an OpenStax textbook in 2013, CTL used a grant to fund a graduate assistant who worked with Brickman to redesign her course. It was an opportunity for Brickman to rethink how to best teach the course, and students have been thanking her ever since.

“It has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for students,” Brickman said, “and the course is much better after we redesigned it.”

The commitment of Brickman and other faculty members to pilot the use of these textbooks has not only benefitted UGA students; it’s also paving the way for other institutions across the nation to follow.

Jim Coverdill, Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Sociology, is partnering with OpenStax to test the effectiveness of free supplementary software. The software, which includes interactive quizzes students take while they’re reading, is designed to help students retain what they’re learning. So far, Coverdill says, it’s working remarkably well.

“Students totally rock on this stuff in a way that surprises me,” he says. “By the end of the course, they grasp the textbook material extraordinarily well.”

Cost savings and better learning outcomes — that’s something everyone can applaud.