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Free Resources Can Be Just as Effective As Textbooks For College Students

Mark Philbrick
BYU Photo

For the last several years a group of professors at Brigham Young University have been studying the effectiveness of using free academic resources in place of costly textbooks. What they’ve found is that great learning doesn’t need to come with a a hefty price tag.

John Hilton teaches in the religion department at BYU and he’s noticed something about older students. At the beginning of a semester when it comes time to buy textbooks some of them take a risk.


"They’ll say well this textbook costs 100 dollars, I’ve been in a class where the professor did not use the textbook, I’m going to wait a week or two to find out if I really need the textbook," Hilton says.


To some professors this might be annoying, but Hilton says it makes a lot of sense. Especially if the student is tight on cash and might be choosing between 1,000 dollars worth of textbooks or paying rent.


“They’re not taking the gamble, they just don’t have the money that first week or two of class," Hilton says.


Hilton has wondered why colleges put this financial burden on students and if there might be a better way. He and two other BYU professors formed the Open Education Group to tackle this problem.


What they found in their research is that students using free academic materials are shown to do as well or better than students using traditional textbooks.


"If you can save students 1,000 dollars per semester and students get the same academic outcomes, we have to ask ourselves what are students getting for that 1,000 dollars," says Hilton.


Hilton says it's almost like giving every student a 1,000 dollar scholarship.


Of course, this approach does require a little more effort from professors. They have to curate a variety of online resources rather than relying on the structure of a single textbook.


But Lane Fischer, another member of the Open Education Group, says that there’s a moral imperative here, especially at the community college level.


“Where we have our most resource poor students trying to get an education," Fischer says.


This research has already made an impact at some community colleges in Virginia and in California, where state legislators have set aside funding for zero-textbook-cost degrees at 20 California community colleges.


Fischer and his colleagues hope to see this trend eventually spread throughout the entire country.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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