Textbooks are so expensive that Hailey Hollinshead usually borrows from them from other students, gets used copies, and often skips buying them altogether.
So, last year when her organic chemistry professor invited students to use a free open textbook from the LibreTexts library, the 21-years-old junior at the University of Illinois Springfield was thrilled. Hollinshead didn’t have to spend $250 to $350 on a new textbook and she had access to the materials from day one.
“It really levels the playing field for students in the class who can’t afford a textbook and get behind,” says Hollinshead, a biochemistry major who is paying for college with loans, partial scholarships, and working as a resident assistant in the dorm. “It was so much easier to navigate and search for topics. At the end of each section, there were interactive problems to solve.”
That course was the only chance Hollinshead has had yet to use open educational resources (OER). But with plans to go to medical school she hopes it’s not the last. “We are a generation that uses technology,” she says. “Hard copy textbooks are becoming a thing of the past.”
LibreTexts offers materials in 12 widely used college-level disciplines from chemistry to humanities. It has 398 textbooks (68,500 pages) in its free online library and covers 154 courses. Since it was established 11 years ago, LibreTexts has been used by 223 million students saving them approximately $31 million.
The project, founded and directed by Delmar Larsen, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of California Davis, has become a leading, non-commercial open textbook organization. In October, LibreTexts received a $4.9 million Open Textbooks Pilot award from the Department of Education.
“We believe bringing everything into our system and making it centralized will make open resources easier to find,” says Larsen, who is scaling up efforts in several areas with the new federal funding. After the grant is over, based on buy-in and usage, it is expected that student savings will be about $5 million per year—which means the cumulative return on investment could reach $50 million in 10 years.
The three-year grant will support the construction of new materials. LibreTexts is working with the University of Arkansas in Little Rock to switch all textbooks its four-year bachelor’s programs in chemistry to open source making it a zero-cost degree. It is expanding content in other areas, including Spanish and a new workforce library to house career technical education materials.
The project also focuses on importing new content already developed for LibreTexts’ central repository. Currently, over 60 undergraduate students integrate open materials into the platform, which often involves dissecting content from PDFs or other sources and typesetting the content within a consistent formatting standard. It is expected that another 40 will be recruited to help populate the library. Once completed, the resulting comprehensive library will facilitate effective gap analysis effort to guide construction efforts of new textbook material.
LibreTexts is rolling out a new application that will make OER published in PDFs, which is notoriously difficult to modify, easier to revise and remix. The application converts PDF content into a version that can be edited and modified. An “OER Remixer” will allow pages to created, renumbered and easily transferred into documents that allow editing. “We think this is a real game changer,” says Larsen. The project is also developing technology to make it smoother to build a new textbook from scratch.
To get the word out about LibreTexts, Larsen says there will be a push to ramp up publicity and its social media presence. The grant will also fund assessment and evaluation, including converting content from the campus disability center into fully accessible material.
Faculty should be interested in adopting OER because too often students don’t buy the book and it allows them to control the curriculum in their classes, says Larsen. It also can be updated as new technology emerges: “It’s a win-win situation.”
As OER expands globally, Larsen sees the potential for a broad positive impact on student learning. The reach of LibreTexts clearly beyond the UC-Davis, helping students in the Cal State University system, California community colleges and far-flung students such as Hollinshead.
“We feel we are providing a good return on the investment,” says Larsen who was moved to get involved in OER watching the cost of textbooks rise from around $50 when he was a student to $200 when he became a faculty member in 2005. “We have a problem these days with all the rising costs in education. I can’t do anything to deal with tuition, but I saw I could help with textbooks.”
— Caralee Adams