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Textbook costs can really dig into the pocketbooks of students — and their parents.
The 49,000 or so University of Hawaii students who went back to class last week are expected to spend upwards of $1,000 on textbooks by the end of this academic year.
But UH has been finding ways to ease some of the burden on students, especially those just starting school.
Since about 2015, the administration and UH campuses have been working on a zero-cost textbook program that encourages professors and instructors to adopt and create open educational resource materials, or OERs.
They’re a collection of learning materials, typically found online, that can be used for free by professors and students because of Creative Commons licenses, in which authors grant the right to use or build on their work. UH is joining a national trend in moving toward mostly free materials in response to the ever-rising costs of college textbooks.
Hae Okimoto, associate vice president for student affairs, is using a three-pronged strategy to make UH classes, especially general education courses, less dependent on pricey textbooks. Teachers can adopt content already open for use, adapt that content or create new material altogether.
Okimoto is spearheading that last prong, encouraging faculty to produce textbooks that can be used across the UH system. Faculty members have already produced two this summer.
“We know cost of living is high and we want to provide options for students,” she said. “They might have Day 1 reading assignments, and if you haven’t started you’re already behind.”
A 2017 survey of students at UH Manoa found that 82% chose not to buy textbooks because of the cost. More than a quarter ended up finding online alternatives or just pirated copies off the web.
The UH Student Caucus, an intercampus advisory group, challenged the administration to have at least 20% of general education courses taught with open source materials or without textbook costs to students within the next two years.
Okimoto is aiming higher, hoping that a majority of general education courses can be taught with no textbook costs within the next several years.
UH has a growing list of professors and instructors who run classes without textbook costs. Part of that has been helping teachers identify resources that can replace textbooks.
UH’s community colleges have led the way. Since 2015, three UH community colleges including Leeward, Kapiolani and Honolulu changed how they use educational materials to save their students an estimated $3.3 million dollars in textbook costs.
Leeward Community College has been particularly successful. This semester, 35% of all class sections don’t require students to spend anything on textbooks, saving them an estimated $500,000, said head librarian Wayde Oshiro.
Oshiro credits LCC’s success to course designers who work closely with faculty. Many professors start off thinking that the content isn’t as good if it’s free. So Oshiro and the course designers help faculty wade through the wealth of resources available.
“Faculty are very aware of minimizing costs for students, with them not only being in college but some paying for families and having multiple jobs to attend college,” Oshiro said.
Reducing the use of textbooks is also a goal of the community colleges’ strategic plan, which asks the campuses to greatly reduce the use of traditional textbooks by 2021.
Okimoto plans to have faculty produce at least two textbooks each year. The goal is to eventually cover most of UH’s high-demand general education courses. Within the next several years, she hopes to have books ready for chemistry, psychology, sociology and biology.
“I know it might take me some time,” she said.
Between teaching and researching, faculty are already short on time. So Okimoto has tried to gather faculty during the summer to produce books in what she calls “book sprints.”
For a small stipend, faculty hole up in a room for 12 hours for three days straight and work to produce a textbook that faculty across the system can use. Over the summer, the faculty created textbooks for English 101 and Economics 130, two courses with high enrollment because they fulfill general education requirements.
“We brought them in and said you have lunch, you have dinner and you’re not leaving until we get this thing finished,” Okimoto said.
Professors can also edit free internet textbooks. Billy Meinke, the only UH staffer assigned to work solely on open education resources, helps UH Manoa faculty design their courses and get their textbooks ready in a format students can access.
He worked with two professors at UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to redesign a human nutrition book. Each chapter begins with an olelo noeau, or Hawaiian proverb, and the text is sprinkled with references to Hawaii and sidebars on local topics like how poi could fit into an infant’s diet.
“My interest is in the freedom they have with the Creative Commons license,” Meinke said, “to not only reuse it the way it came in, but they can also be adapted for (faculty’s) own teaching style.”
Students who are more comfortable with a hard copy can print them.
Each campus has its own point people, like Oshiro, who help faculty figure ways to reduce textbook use while maintaining their usual workloads.
One of the challenges, Okimoto said, is that aside from Meinke, there’s no dedicated staffing or funding for making the transition.
Other states have both. The Washington Legislature, for example, gave a $750,000 grant matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Washington State Board of Career and Technical Colleges to develop open source materials.
In two years, Washington produced 81 textbooks for some of its most crowded classes.
Last year, UH President David Lassner authorized Okimoto to spend $100,000 on the zero-cost textbook initiative. Okimoto used that to cover costs for the book sprints, as well as provide small stipends for faculty to research alternatives to textbooks in their classes.
If the Washington experience is any indication, many professors may be uneasy about the transition. A survey of faculty at Washington community colleges found that they want more institutional and financial support, as well as training on how to use the free material. The survey also found professors worried about the lack of time and technological skill to find alternatives, and discomfort with using unknown materials.
Some professors are reluctant to give up textbooks they’ve relied on for years because they use teaching materials and test packs that come with them. Okimoto said that the next step, after producing textbooks for general education courses, is to create teaching materials to go along with them.
Some instructors have been creating their own material for years, funded or not. Conred Maddox, a Honolulu Community College professor, has never assigned a textbook in the seven years he’s taught English.
“I’ve done my best to get rid of them,” he said, staring at his bookshelf largely devoid of traditional textbooks.
He creates his own materials each semester depending on his students, typically starting with an entrance quiz to survey what level everyone is at.
His department abandoned online resources created by textbook publishers three years ago for its entry level English courses. But Maddox said that some classes, like his upper level literature courses, can’t be taught without textbooks.
Maddox worries that some students might not have the technology to access some free resources or know how to use them.
And if too many books become free, he said, students might start expecting it in all their courses.
“They should feel like they’ve earned something, ‘I bought this book. Now I better use it,’” he said. “That’s the idea we need to sell. It’s not a $100 book. It’s a $100 tool.”
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