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Open Educational Resources Alleviate Students’ Costs for Education

The days of only having hardcover textbooks and hours spent in front of card catalogs in search of research are long gone. Libraries have been transformed to include online libraries filled with unlimited resources.

The Virtual Academic Library Environment (VALE), a consortium of 53 New Jersey college and university libraries, partners with Edge and provides guidance for the state’s higher education.

The VALE Consortium was developed in 1998 as a grassroots organization to develop inter-institutional information connectivity and collaborative library application projects among New Jersey academic libraries. VALE’s mission involves helping institutions meet the demands of students and faculty for access to scholarly materials.

VALE also partners with LibraryLinkNJ (LLNJ) and the New Jersey State Library to further excellence in learning and research through innovative and collaborative approaches to information resources and services.

“VALE is the leading voice for the academic library institutions in New Jersey. We’re an organization looked to for guidance in innovative collaboration amongst libraries of all academic sectors, 2-year or 4-year,” said Steve Chudnick, Director of Bankier Library, Innovation and Learning Resources Institute at Brookdale Community College and member of the VALE Executive Board Committee. “We’re able to use our leverage and buying power to get preferred pricing on academic databases and other resources.”

In collaboration with the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) and the New Jersey Chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL-NJ), VALE co-sponsors and co-hosts the annual VALE conference held in January each year, as well as other summits, workshops and programs of interest for the academic library community.

Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement Growing in Prevalence

College is expensive and often students don’t think of extra costs such as room and board or the cost of textbooks. College students look for creative ways to maneuver the purchasing process of a textbook, whether these students share, rent, or inter-library loan the book. The cost of educational textbooks is pricey and these young adults have found a number of work-arounds both legit and not.

Learners also discover that not all textbook chapters are assigned by instructors or they don’t correlate well with other coursework.

These reasons have influenced OER’s rise in popularity, and open course materials have become the Internet’s answer to the cost and customization issues presented by the traditional textbook. Educators can find current learning and teaching materials available to repurpose, use, and share. Entire textbooks can be found, as well as classroom games, lesson plans, lecture slides, and videos.

Most importantly, these resources are free to students and why VALE is incorporating professional development around the use of these resources into their consortium for New Jersey’s academic libraries. With a VALE and Open Textbook Network (OTN) partnership, VALE has the unique ability to facilitate OER programs to benefit New Jersey institutions, eliminating potential frustrations and concerns for administrations.

“Aside from the affordability issues around OER, the Open Textbook Library provided by OTN gives faculty an opportunity to explore a much wider range of resources than just commercial textbooks, and so the availability of OER can really provide for innovation in the classroom, keeping courses current,” said Megan Dempsey, Instructional Services Librarian at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) and VALE Executive Board Committee member. “By utilizing information available on a particular day online, this resource really brings a very modern educational experience to students.”

The OER movement has grown in prevalence within higher education, especially when the program lowers a student’s overall cost of attendance and eliminates extra expenses. Dempsey believes OER provides extra incentive for students wanting to remain within the state for their higher education.

Lowering costs for quality higher education entices students to remain in-state could help with what is known as “brain-drain.”

“Particularly in New Jersey, we’ve been seeing record numbers of students leaving the state for institutions of higher education in other states,” Dempsey said. “We believe having a solid OER program statewide can make us more competitive and serve as an attractive reason for students to remain in New Jersey.”

New Jersey’s colleges and universities value their education and are working hard to make sure higher education is affordable to everyone. In the community college sector, administrators are continuing to look at enrollment retention and student success.

“I’d say the open textbooks are a proven way to improve students’ success because you’re giving students who otherwise can’t afford an expensive textbook access to needed course materials from the start of the first class which, as a result, can prevent them from falling behind,” Chudnick said.

Academic Libraries Uniquely Positioned to Champion OER

What makes OER resources different from other resources found online? The answer is licensing, as traditional resources, including many proprietary textbooks, cannot be publicly shared because of copyright laws. Without the proper license, an educator can’t repurpose or share content outside of what’s permitted by the Fair Use law.

Differently, OERs fall under the Creative Commons license, which grants the user permission to share, use, and repurpose the resource in accordance with the license’s terms.

“Academic libraries have the collaborative mindset and infrastructure, both physical and digital, to be central to this mission, just as we’re at the heart of the traditional academic campus and enterprise,” Chudnick said.

He went on to say how OERs fall under similar characteristics. Libraries are able to leverage their relationships with faculty from a variety of disciplines. Librarians are also able to utilize their skills as researchers to help faculty find OER. The collaboration allows academic libraries to help faculty by discovering available resources and providing research options.

“Academic libraries can help provide the highest quality OERs in the learning management system,” Chudnick said. “Plus, our websites are a natural place to centralize the resources digitally.”

Librarians are trained to find quality resources that are available and appropriate for students. Plus, these individuals work with both faculty and students, allowing them to leverage relationships and advocate for information equity.

“Librarians are excellent resource finders, allowing us to support faculty in one of the most challenging parts of adopting OER,” Dempsey said. “Also, for as long as libraries have existed, these organizations have provided access to information, making resources as equitable as possible. VALE has a perfect niche in OER to continue this mission and even bring the movement into the classroom and beyond our own walls.”

Providing Needed Assistance Creates Student Success

At Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) in Branchburg, New Jersey, the library organized a student survey to discover how the cost of textbooks impacted students.

“RVCC has a whole campus-wide initiative on closing the achievement gap, and the library is playing a role in these efforts. We’ve always had this mission of equitable access to information,” Dempsey said. “I think information is key to course content, so having free and accessible access to course content makes higher education more equitable and more achievable for everybody.”

The survey showed how students often had to make choices between purchasing their textbooks or purchasing groceries or handling a car payment or paying for car insurance. The first paycheck would go towards those necessities, and the student would wait until the following paycheck to purchase textbooks. Then because a student waited to get their materials, they would fall behind in class and lower their chances for success.

RVCC developed a resource center for students, with the goal of fulfilling countless needs, including amenities like a clothing closet where students receive professional clothing for job interviews or the availability of an immigration lawyer to visit with students about legal issues. A food pantry was even opened on campus to assist the growing number of students experiencing food insecurity.

“The perception is if students can afford this institution, they can afford their textbooks, but the reality is many students are tapping out their financial aid for their tuition and then don’t have money left for textbooks,” Dempsey said. “Others are supporting a family and sacrificing expenditures for their family in order to be able to purchase textbooks. By removing the textbook-cost barrier, burdens are eased.”

Brookdale Community College has developed similar efforts toward helping students; including the opening of food pantries and making sure Bankier Library has available textbooks on reserve whenever possible.

Recognizing these realities, Brookdale has developed a new Academic Master Plan that addresses these potential barriers to students’ success, obstacles the students themselves have raised as major concerns.

“If students don’t have a reasonably stable home life and aren’t getting a full meal before class, how are they expected to succeed at their studies,” Chudnick said. “Similarly with the textbooks, if you can’t afford food and you can’t afford a house, you probably aren’t going to be able to afford your textbook. All of this assistance folds into eliminating potential barriers to a student’s success.”

Open Textbook Network Expands OER’s Mission

The Open Textbook Network is the driving force behind the Open Textbook Library, which is a repository of existing fully formatted open textbooks. The physical format of the textbook has the look and feel of a regular textbook, but the books are open and have the creative commons license, allowing printing, distribution, editing or modification to take place.

Faculty then have the opportunity to go to the Open Textbook Library and search for their discipline, and find existing open textbooks. Adopting the book is similar to visiting the MacMillan website and looking for a textbook in their specialty.

“The creators are expanding the OER mission by making this process simpler for faculty and presenting material faculty are used to and familiar with,” Dempsey said.

This process eliminates the frustration of scouring the Internet for course materials and provides one place to find a textbook. For example, faculty can swap out their old material with a current Intro to Psychology textbook. Dempsey says OER is especially helpful in the high enrollment and Gateway courses where the coursework has a big impact on students.

“Seeing the price difference and the availability of the current material is often a way to get faculty in the door to OER because the Open Textbook Library is a low lift for finding OER,” she said. “Instructors are finding that use of OTL makes the process easy to swap out a textbook and provide students a free textbook rather than a $250 textbook.”

Eliminating a huge cost for students has an immediate impact and creates a return on investment.

Valuable OER Training Options

Both Dempsey and Chudnick find huge value in the Open Textbook Network and their trainer workshops. In February, there were two workshops at Middlesex County College and over 120 people attended.

The pair found the “Train the Trainer” presentation to be extremely valuable, because the information provided allowed them to return to their home institution and deliver the same methodologies.

The information introduced at the workshop was easily tailored to a campus environment, and OTN provided attendees with a whole library of resources, including a PowerPoint and templates.

“The presentation I just heard gives me the ability to return to my campus and deliver a very similar presentation,” Chudnick said. “I’d be able to anticipate and answer the hard questions and be able to just talk OER at a level where I could work and recruit faculty.”

He said the process is aided if you ask the instructor to check out the resource and then write a review. Some institutions may give cash incentives for faculty to do so. Once faculty are on board, OER use begins to move around the campus.

VALE’s Partnership with OTN

Two Edge members, Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), are both institutional members of OTN. Dempsey heard about OTN at the same pre-conference workshop as the NJIT representative. NJIT had the resources to join as an institutional member but RVCC was unable to at the time.

“I approached VALE and, as someone on the member’s council, proposed that VALE consider a consortial membership,” she said. “I knew OTN was out of reach economically for my institution and had a feeling cost was probably an obstacle for others.”

Chudnick and Dempsey were asked by VALE’s executive committee to be a liaison to the OTN taskforce, which Dempsey created. Following both of their acceptances, Dempsey was then elected to the executive committee and has been doing a lot of work on her campus with OTN.

VALE joined OTN and now provides a consortium approach for the organization’s members. By joining many of New Jersey’s institutions together, the consortium allows for more participation and better use of funds.

“There are so many different places, if you put all of the schools together in one, you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck, a lot more participation, and I think, just the way VALE is positioned, the organization will be the natural leader to take this challenge on,” Chudnick said.

Both Chudnick and Dempsey are working hard to generate more coordination and collaboration around the state for OER. One main goal is to increase communication, as all schools bring different opportunities to the table.

“We want to share what we are doing and how we can build on what each other is undertaking,” Dempsey said. “Our coordinated effort with VALE leading the OER movement will help higher education in New Jersey.”

VALE has the unique ability to share OER because of resources like the organization’s website and shared Google drive filled with presentations and information. Additionally, interested parties can discover how to put together a workshop at their respective institution.

“We will help provide the infrastructure to guide people along on the OER journey,” Chudnick said.

VALE is also developing a community of practice among the institutions, which will provide more coordination and collaboration.

“We should be having conversations about common open resources that can be used to achieve those outcomes and save students’ money in the process,” she said. “Having a statewide conversation will be really valuable.”

The LISTSERV is set up on VALE to promote further collaboration, and there will also be a data dashboard to track adoptions of Open Textbooks from institutions. The tracking will record the number of faculty attending OTN workshops at their campuses and which users write reviews of books in the Open Textbook Library.

“We are excited to see the data from students’ savings on OER adoptions and see the VALE picture of the impact OER is having on students,” Dempsey said.

The most successful OER implementation teams are librarians, instructional technologists and faculty – each working together in their respective roles to make the adoption of OER a successful movement. When libraries connect faculty with the instructional designers or technologists to technologically implement the resources the librarians have helped the users find, collaboration grows amongst all parties.

The growth of the OTN and OER materials is something VALE is excited to be able to organize and collaborate for higher education in New Jersey.

For more information on becoming involved with OER at your institution, visit the Contact Us section of VALE website via