Working through college

Introduction to Sociology textbooks sit on the shelf in the BMCC bookstore in Pendleton in April 2018.

At a time of rising costs for tuition and fees, it’s not often that a college can celebrate what it saved students.

But Blue Mountain Community College did that when it held a small get-together to tout a large number: $1 million.

That’s the figure BMCC officials estimate the college has saved students over the past two years in textbook costs, savings made possible by a long-term effort to convert its course material to open educational resources, or OERs.

BMCC’s effort comes at a time when textbook prices are skyrocketing.

According to Vox, textbook prices have risen 1,000 percent since the 1970s and a 2014 report from the Public Interest Research Groups showed that two-thirds of students surveyed had skipped buying or renting course materials because they couldn’t afford it.

BMCC is no different. Before getting involved in OERs, Bruce Kauss, the BMCC e-learning coordinator, said it wasn’t unusual for a course to require a $300 textbook.

Kauss said BMCC started introducing OERs into their courses in 2012, but the college really started gearing up its efforts in the past two years.

Using $98 as the average cost of a textbook and factoring in enrollment and the number of classes that use OERs, BMCC estimates it now saves students at least $500,000 in textbook costs.

BMCC is able to avoid using traditional textbooks in many of its courses by encouraging instructors to build their curriculum through online resources like CK-12 and OpenStax.

It’s a trend that colleges and universities across the country are taking advantage of, and BMCC wants to be a leader in that trend in the state.

John Fields, the BMCC vice president of instruction, said it isn’t always easy to get faculty on board with OERs.

A former administrator at Florida State College at Jacksonville, Fields said some faculty members preferred using textbooks because of the additional supplementary material that provided lesson plans and tests.

But Fields said there isn’t the same cultural resistance at BMCC.

Many degrees and certificates use OERs in two-thirds or more of their courses.

Velda Arnaud, a business and leadership instructor and the chair of the business administration department, said the retail management certificate could become the first BMCC program to use all OERs by 2021.

Arnaud said she found that students were more engaged if she assigns them hands-on projects derived from OERs rather than a test from a textbook.

Similarly, the BMCC math department is finding OERs beneficial to both faculty and students.

Stan Beach, a math and computer science instructor, remembers the days when math classes would require a textbook that would cost hundreds of dollars.

Since then, the math department has switched to myOpenMath, a free service that offers free open-source math textbooks.

Beach said hundreds of math instructors from across the country contribute to the textbook, and if Beach or any other instructors notice an error in the curriculum, they can amend it without having to hassle with a publisher.

“It’s the way math should be,” he said.

Among the celebration’s attendees were members of the BMCC Associated Student Government, who munched on pizza as Kauss and Arnaud gave a presentation.

Monica Silva of Yakima said student opinion on OERs varies.

“I think it depends on the student,” she said. “Some people prefer hard copies to a computer.”

But Silva also added that she herself was pretty adaptable and liked the money she was able to save.

Not all classes are ready to adopt OERs. Some degrees, like hospitality and gaming or accounting, don’t necessarily have a lot of free educational resources online.

But Kauss said some professors are working directly with textbook publishers to bring down the cost of textbooks.

Kauss said his goal would be to see every class bring their educational material cost to $40 or lower.

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