By DONOVAN HARRELL
The Office of the Provost is opening up a new round of funding for an initiative to help students cope with the increasing cost of textbooks and other learning materials.
Starting Feb. 1, the office will invite proposals from faculty for Open Educational Resource projects. Proposals will be due March 20.
Last year, former Provost Patricia Beeson convened a standing committee to learn about OER materials and how they can be applied to the Pitt community.
Her move was prompted by the Student Government Board passing a resolution in January 2018 to expand the use of OER and open textbooks.
OER materials are course materials created by faculty to help students offset the costs of textbooks. These can range from a personalized selection of copyright-free works to additional, free-to-use math problems to help give students some extra practice.
According to the National Association of College Stores, the average price of a college textbook rose from $57 in 2007-2008 to $80 in 2015-2016. The College Board also analyzed school data from 2017-2018 and determined that students paid up to $1,250 on course materials, including textbooks and related materials.
Pitt’s own Office of Admission and Financial Aid said students should plan to spend roughly $772 per year on textbooks.
In light of these findings, Provost Ann Cudd and Assistant Provost Nancy Tannery continued with Beeson’s initiative, providing small grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 to support faculty in adapting an open textbook or OER course and development funding from $2,000 to $5,000 to support individual or team-based development for OER coursework, according to the Provost’s office.
“Textbooks these days can be incredibly expensive,” Cudd said. “And our faculty are already creating a lot of great work, great resources. And if they can provide those to the students for free and, not only that, but provide them openly on the web out to the world, that’s a good thing.”
Pitt is still in the very beginning stages of adopting more OER, Cudd admitted. There’s still a bit of gray area as to how much copywritten materials professors can use, and there is no formal peer review process for the materials. It’s also unclear if the materials for OER can be considered published works for faculty.
Tannery said Pitt is looking to the State University of New York and the University of California, Davis as examples for how to implement OER.
Professors also have the option to consult Pitt’s University Library System and the Center for Teaching and Learning for guidance and to use Creative Commons licenses, which are open for anyone to use.
Using what’s available
Grants were handed out in the fall 2018 semester to 11 OER projects in various subjects, such as economics, mathematics, law and information technology.
“The grants are really meant to kind of stimulate thought about it — to incentivize some champions, some people who are going to pave the way, be the path-breaking faculty,” Cudd said. “This may become a more regular practice for faculty, that would be a great thing.”
Tannery said professors have the freedom to adopt other materials from other open resources to use in their courses, or just create open materials from scratch.
Participants were given 18 months to complete their materials.
Angela Athanas, a lecturer with the Department of Mathematics, had her project funded by the grant. It involves the use of LON-CAPA, a free-to-use online learning platform developed by Michigan State University, to help expand the amount of math practice problems for Pitt students to use.
Athanas said she’s been using the platform for roughly 10 years and was introduced to it when her daughter found herself struggling to complete a physics problem.
She began coding and creating practice calculus problems for students in her free time. The problems use randomly generated numbers, so, more often than not, students will have their own individual problems to solve.
Athanas said LON-CAPA saves students money as they often have to purchase textbooks and online codes through the publishers to have access to homework and practice problems.
“I’m not against anybody making a dollar — it’s economics,” Athanas said. “But I think the students — someone’s got their arm behind their back and holding them hostage. Holding us hostage too, because we have to account to them because they have everything there.”
Not for the faint of heart
William M. Carter Jr., a Pitt Law professor and former dean of the law school, is developing a First Amendment course for law students in their second and third year.
Carter said this is his first time teaching the course and creating OER materials. His project will consist of a curated group of court cases. He said he got involved with OER because he, like most faculty, had thought of creating his own course materials.
The grant program was “a good nudge” to get him to develop the materials, he said. Additionally, students, over the years, have asked why they paid for a 1,000-page casebook when they only use 400 of the pages.
“But in talking with the students about it, they appreciate knowing that what they are reading is directly relevant to what I’ll be teaching and testing,” Carter said of OER. “By definition, this doesn’t contain extraneous material because I’m the one who created it, and I’m the one who’s teaching the course. So they seem to appreciate that.”
Carter added that he would encourage faculty to apply for the grants and create OER materials. However, he warned that it’s not easy to do so.
“And you have to allocate enough time to do it and do it well, and you have to treat it with the pedagogical seriousness that you treat your classes or your own research,” Carter said. “And it is a significant project, so I think people should be encouraged to do it, and I hope people will apply, but … if done well, it is not for the faint of heart.”
More information about the OER funding can be found here.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.