Thursday, May 17, 2012

Coming in the Back Door: Leveraging Open Textbooks To Promote Scholarly Communications on Campus

Bell, SJ. (2012). Coming in the Back Door: Leveraging Open Textbooks To Promote Scholarly Communications on Campus. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 1(1):eP1040. Available at:

Steven J. Bell Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services, Temple University

In 2007 I was assigned the responsibility for creating a scholarly communications initiative at Temple. Though lacking deep knowledge of the issues, I committed to a serious effort to raise awareness, build collective support,and contribute change to scholarly publishing practices at my institution. As a first step, I attended the ARL/ACRL Institute on Scholarly Communication, where I improved my understanding of the different componentsof a scholarly communications initiative, and learnedstrategies for engaging faculty on a variety of levels.


Despite these efforts to connect with faculty on scholarly communications issues, after two years it was clear in my meetings with department chairs that we had made little progress.[snip].

Then something important happened. In 2009 at the American Library Association Midwinter conference I attended the SPARC Forum. The forum featured three speakers on a topic new to me, open access textbooks. [snip]


The dilemma, as I interpreted it, was similar to that of the scholarly publishing crisis. Faculty author the textbooks, then turn over the rights to publishers, who in turn sell the content back to the faculty members’ students at premium prices. Unlike scholarly journals, where faculty authors mostly earn prestige and career advancement opportunities, textbook publishing holds the potential of royalties. However, as I learned in the session, the vast majority of textbooks actually earn their authors little over time. [snip].


Following the SPARC Forum, two things occurred to me. First, while the textbook dilemma had no direct impact on the library budget, it seemed that we should be doing more to tackle this growing crisis for our students, a crisis that needed faculty intervention. Second, the textbook crisis held the potential to serve as the issue to create the awareness needed to get more faculty and graduate students focused on the scholarly communications crisis. I thought of it as a back door approach. If journal pricing, author rights, and open access ignited no spark of concern in our academic community, perhaps the growing attention on the textbook crisis could be the necessary catalyst to create the awareness we had thus far failed to generate.


As I explored current practices, it became obvious that the vast majority of academic libraries, like my own, were doing nothing about the textbook crisis. The majority simply acquired no textbooks. An extremely small number of academic libraries allocated funds to buy a single copy of every textbook. [snip]. Why are we not, I asked, applying the same passion for scholarly communications and open access to the world of textbooks?

Then I began conversations on my own campus. As the library’s representative to Temple’s Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable, I brought the textbook issue to the table and sought faculty reaction to a proposal to create more awareness about the textbook crisis. [snip]. I discovered that one of our more tech-savvy faculty members had stopped using a traditional textbook just that previous semester. He had spent nearly a year compiling learning materials from a wide range of sources—everything from the library’s databases, to chapters from open textbooks, to his own writings and open multimedia resources. This provided the perfect model for what came to be known as the alternate textbook.

Around this time I also learned about the Curricular Resource Strategy (CRS), a term coined by Mark Milliron, a leading expert and consultant in higher education. Milliron’s premise is that print textbooks are an outmoded model for delivering learning content. He confirmed my belief that the time was ripe for faculty to structure their own instructional content from all the learning objects available to them. To test my ideas, I wrote two columns about CRS and a longer essay about the textbook crisis for Inside Higher Education, all of which received an enthusiastic response. I then developed a more formal proposal for an “Alternate Textbook Project” that would be led and funded by the library to support faculty experimentation with alternatives to traditional textbooks. [snip]

The Alternate Textbook Project sought four primary outcomes:
  • Save students money by eliminating expensive textbooks
  • Improve student learning with tailored curricular resources
  • Support faculty experimentation with open educational resources
  • Seed the roots of an institutional culture that supports open sharing of scholarship
The first call for proposals, after vetting from TLTR colleagues, was issued in February 2010. The premise was simple: faculty members would receive a $1,000 grant to eliminate their existing traditional textbook and replace it with a nontraditional alternate textbook. [snip]

This limited number of accepted proposals met our available funding and the awardees came from multiple disciplines. As anticipated, those who wrote proposals identified a variety of creative approaches to developing an alternate textbook. In addition to funding, the library also provided support and expertise to help the faculty identify appropriate learning content.

Faculty implemented their alternate textbooks in the fall 2011 semester. Over the summer the library sponsored a meeting where the faculty could meet each other, share their project ideas and progress, and obtain assistance, if needed, with their alternate textbooks. During the fall semester, I maintained correspondence with the first cohort of alternative textbook grant recipients, and sent them occasional links to articles about open educational resources. [snip]


In January 2012, the participating faculty submitted their final evaluations. Among the significant findings:
  • Students responded favorably to the elimination of traditional textbooks in all the courses; [snip].
  • Learning materials used in these projects included government documents, selected book chapters, multimedia learning objects, digital primary research documents from the library’s special collections, and generous links to content in the library’s electronic journal and e-book collections. While the alternate textbooks required more time to develop compared to the ordering of print textbooks, all the faculty believed that the time invested was well worth it both in terms of cost savings to students and improved learning.
  • Multiple faculty indicated that students spent more time with the learning content owing to the ease of access, facilitated by use of the institution’s course management system to organize and deliver the learning content; the general observation was that making the learning content free encouraged its use, ... .
  • Faculty, once freed from a traditional textbook, felt more at ease adding content on-the-fly to their alternate textbooks, keeping them up-to-date throughout the semester.
  • One faculty member reported feeling less guilt about requiring the students to purchase textbooks, but also pointed out that he felt less pressure to rush through the course material in order to cover the bulk of the textbook ... .
  • In nearly every course some students indicated they preferred print, traditional textbooks because they consolidated the learning material into a single source that was easy to use. Some students were less enamored having to find the material needed for each class session within the course site, and there was less satisfaction with having to print materials when desired. However, students indicated that the cost-savings of the alternate textbook outweighed all the advantages of print textbooks.
The Alternate Textbook Project was considered a success, but like any first-time project there were identifiable opportunities for improvement, such as more attention on accessibility and leveraging existing open textbooks. The considerable cost savings to students, estimated in the thousands of dollars, was a tangible positive outcome. According to the faculty participants, there was a noticeable improvement in student learning in most of the courses. [snip]

Our awareness efforts were helped by Nick Santis, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, who contacted me about the Alternate Textbook Project. [snip]. Since we were already planning to meet for the post-evaluation debriefing session, I invited Santis to join us by conference call. The resulting conversation led to a small post in the Chronicle’s Wired Campus blog. [snip]. The impact reached beyond my own campus. [snip]. At least one other academic library, at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has already implemented a similar textbook project. The Alternate Textbook Project website offers the details to any interested party seeking to replicate the project at their institution.

While the Alternate Textbook Project is unlikely to launch an overnight revolution in either textbook publishing or scholarly communications, it does demonstrate that small projects aimed at creating change can make an impact. [snip]. Whether the academic librarian community gets there through the back, front or even a side door, our commitment to creating open access to the world’s knowledge will make a difference. The first step is to open a door, and as campus leaders, cross the threshold towards our preferred future for scholarly communications.

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