If you’ve ever taken a college course you know the shock of textbook prices. They can set a student back thousands of dollars each year and some of them hardly get used. But, there might be a better option.
In an entry level math course at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) Brenda Gardner, the professor, sketches out an equation on the board.
“It was $120 for a new math textbook," Gardner says.
Gardner explains that while this class no longer has a pricey textbook, that wasn't always the case. So, she wants the students to work out how much less they pay now. This is all right in line with what the class has been studying, costs and percentages.
“How much did you guys pay this semester?" Gardner asks, "So most of you guys said $7.”
That $7 is the current fee which I’ll explain in a bit.
“So if I am now paying 6 percent then I am saving how much?" Gardner asks.
"94 percent," a few students shout out.
94 percent less. How is that possible? Well, this class is part of a growing trend at SLCC. Rather than purchasing a traditional textbook from a publisher, as most professors still do, Gardner and and the rest of the math faculty have created an “open” textbook. It lives online, it’s openly licensed and it costs nothing to access.
That $7 fee? That was just for worksheets to use throughout the semester.
Gardner says she’s ashamed to admit that when she started teaching at SLCC seven years ago, textbook prices were an afterthought. But now she realizes how much of an impact these costs have. Especially for students at community college.
"They aren’t just your traditional students," says Gardner. "They have kids, they are working full time, they are fitting in one or two classes where they can. Things are tight.”
One student for which this is true is Krystal Fugal.
“I went through a pretty rough divorce. Had to kind of run with my kids," says Fugal.
Fugal is a student in Gardner’s class. She’s 35 and a single mother of four little girls. The youngest is in kindergarten.
Fugal hopes to get into hospital administration eventually but for now it’s just a matter of juggling her time and paying her bills. She gets some financial aid but things are still really tight. Just last Spring, Fugal had to spend $560 on textbooks.
Which, she says can feel like a punch in the gut.
“When you’re having to worry about costs and things then you have to worry about gas and then you have to worry, okay, am I going to get breakfast," Fugal says. "Since I’m running all my kids around. Having to go the library, having to study and things.”
The conversation about textbooks quickly became a conversation about something much bigger.
“It’s hard because I want my girls to know they can succeed," says Fugal. "I want them to know they can do a lot more. That they can be able to go to college and I’m the example that they have. So, when I get discouraged they know.”
A $7 fee, as opposed to $120, makes a huge difference for someone like Fugal. And for students in her situation that could be the difference between staying in school or dropping out entirely.
But when it comes to open textbooks, cost isn’t the only factor here.
"Open has gotten good," says Jason Pickavance, a former teacher, now administrator at SLCC tasked with spreading the word about open textbooks.
“I can show you an open textbook that looks like any textbook out there on the market and is as professionally designed and is authored by faculty at universities," says Pickavance.
Pickavance says open textbooks have already saved nearly $5 million for students at SLCC since 2014. But, he knows professors can be skeptical of the quality.
While it does take more effort on their part, for example that math department worked for 3 years to get their textbook ready, Pickavance says it’s making them better teachers.
“They’re using open content to improve course design," says Pickavance.
The idea with open textbooks is that the information is out there it just needs to be organized. And organizing the textbook gives the professors an opportunity to re-organize their whole curriculum. They have more ownership and Pickavance says students notice.
“Students aren’t dumb, they know when they’re in a good course versus a course where it’s just being phoned in," Pickavance says.
It’s much harder to phone it in with open content.
While there’s progress at a place like SLCC, this is still a relatively new idea. There a plenty of colleges and universities that haven't caught on yet.
For textbook publishers it’s still mostly business as usual. After all, it’s an industry that pulls in billions of dollars each year. The idea of just giving textbooks away doesn’t quite make sense. But they are taking notice.
Cengage for example, one of the top 5 education publishers in the country, launched a program weeks ago called OpenNow.
It lives online and functions as a textbook that adjusts to the learner. You get more of what you need and less of what you don't.
Each section comes with an assessment and based on how you do the textbook gives you chunks of texts or videos to watch. It's not a terribly new idea but it shows that even a dominant publishing house is learning to adapt.
Cengage charges a $25 dollar fee for the platform. Rather than selling the information, Cengage is selling the delivery system.
I asked one of the site's designers, Jon Mott, if this could mean the end of hundred dollar textbooks. He said, "Emphatically, yes." But not just because of costs, but because teaching as a whole is evolving.
“I think the days of a professor picking a book and coming to class each day and lecturing on chapter one and then chapter two and then periodically giving a midterm and then a final, that I think is what is going away," says Mott.
That’s not saying classes like that aren’t still happening right now. They are. And while Mott is optimistic about what’s coming it will take time. All things in education take time. But this is one instance where a more affordable, more practical, more useful option seems to be gaining some ground.