Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Liz Gabbitas, who works at the J. Willard Marriott Library, at the University of Utah, where she focuses on reducing the cost of higher education for the University’s 32,000 students. In addition to the Espresso Book Machine mentioned here, she manages the library’s course reserve service and its collection of textbooks and course materials. In this guest post, she reports on a collaborative effort between the library and a faculty member to create an affordable alternative to a high-cost Arabic textbook.
College textbooks are expensive. In most industries, a more expensive product is also a higher quality one. However, in college textbook publishing this may not be true. In the following case study, an instructor at the University of Utah on the hunt for better materials for an entry-level Arabic language course came to the library looking to create a solution. This article explores the resulting workbook, the collaborative process, and the future of course materials like this one.
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), textbook costs to students have increased by 82% over the past decade, three times the rate of inflation. It’s now estimated that the average undergraduate at a state institution pays $1,250 per year for course materials. This cost has become so high that 65% of students report they have decided not to purchase a required textbook for a course. Of those students, a whopping 94% reported concern this decision would negatively impact their grade. Clearly, we have a problem.
The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act requires textbook costs be disclosed to students at the point of registration. At the University of Utah, this is addressed by asking instructors to submit their official course material adoptions to the Campus Store, which then lists these materials for students. According to the Campus Store’s adoption records for Fall 2017, language courses at a 1000 level — the university’s freshman level connotation — had an average total required material cost of $206. The course with the highest cost required $395 of materials, again for an entry-level language course. These numbers don’t include recommended supplementary materials, such as dictionaries or study guides.
My work in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah allows me to talk about textbook options with professors as they make their selection for an upcoming semester. When I bring up Open Educational Resources (OERs) or other non-traditional materials, the most frequent protest is that the quality of these materials will always suffer compared to textbooks offered by major publishers and that this will in turn hurt their students’ learning experiences. In this case, data proves that claim false.
What We Did
During the summer of 2017, Arabic instructor Marie Groberg approached the library about her course materials for the entry-level Arabic course she would be teaching in the fall. The previous two semesters she had taught the class using one of the most widely adopted textbooks for beginning Arabic. However, she was dissatisfied with this and other entry-level Arabic language learning texts available in the marketplace. Her own research in second language acquisition and the pedagogy she had developed through her teaching career led her to believe there was a better way. Groberg had a broad, new vision which included a novel way of approaching the alphabet and she needed materials to support it.
I manage the Marriott Library’s Espresso Book Machine (EBM), a product of OnDemand Books which provides print-on-demand services to the library, the university, and our larger community. It’s a tool the Marriott Library has used for a decade to archive theses and dissertations and allow our University Press to make back titles available on demand. As a self-publishing service available to the community, it’s also a channel to subvert the traditional publishing game.
In our first conversations, Groberg and I quickly saw the EBM would be the perfect avenue for this project. It allowed us to run copies quickly and cheaply, which meant the instructor would be able to run proofs and then test things like the calligraphy exercises she had created before assigning the workbook. The final cost would also be low, making this manageable for students.
The instructor created a compilation of assignments and reference materials, all her own original work. One of the most important elements was the presence of calligraphy assignments. As part of her learning plan, Groberg guided the students through proper techniques as they learned the alphabet. This required special pages with a heavy paper weight and carefully designed handwriting ruled lines. She and I worked together on design and formatting to meet all these needs. Without any external impetus, this was a direct author-library collaboration.
Goals of the Project
Groberg and I were excited about this project for different reasons. Obviously, her main goal was to fill a gap in the existing literature. I can’t say why there is only one widely-used textbook for teaching Arabic in higher education, but the method she developed using her own research on second language acquisition wasn’t supported by this existing textbook. Her theory was that non-Latin alphabet languages have a different acquisition process for students whose native language is Latin alphabet-based than the process for learning a second language with the same alphabet, a major implication for all instructors of what the US National Security Education Program consider “critical languages”. This workbook was a step forward in her own scholarly work.
My goal was rather different. Seeing students visit our Course Reserve offerings on a daily basis in an attempt to save money on textbooks, I wanted to see how low we could keep the cost to students and still provide quality material. Our pricing structure for self-publishing projects on the EBM is quite low; because the library views self-publishing resources such as use of the EBM as a service rather than a revenue for income, patrons pay our cost instead of a markup. I hoped with this pricing model we would be able to keep the costs low for students.
From a broader perspective, I had another goal. We needed to create this material quickly. It had to be ready to print for Groberg’s Fall 2017 class, a few short months from when we first started talking about it. Although faculty members do sometimes approach the creation of custom course materials far enough in advance to rely on the great resources available for this sort of project, more often they come to me two days before the semester begins and expect to create something new. This project gave us a chance to try something fast but not unreasonably so.
After proofs had been approved and before the semester started, the instructor gave me the expected enrollment for her Fall 2017 Arabic 1010 class and I printed enough copies for her students. When her enrollment unexpectedly increased due to late registrations, I was able to print additional copies on demand thanks to the Espresso Book Machine. Charging only our costs to print the books, as is our library policy, students got this workbook for $9. This is radically cheaper than the marketplace alternative. Again, the average cost of course materials for a 1000 level language course at the University of Utah is $206. These students spent 95% less than they would have with a traditional textbook or online access code.
We didn’t go into this project planning to compare the materials in any quantitative way. Fortunately, the University took care of that for us. Students are given the opportunity to provide feedback on their courses and their instructors at the end of each semester. Since this same instructor taught Arabic 1010 in the Fall 2016 semester using the beginning Arabic textbook with the largest share of the market, we can analyze student responses between the two semesters to directly compare the materials.
One question on the standard survey asks about the overall course content with the statement “The course content was well organized.” Students using the new workbook in the 2017 class were 55% in strong agreement, compared to the previous year’s 20%. This could support the argument that a custom-made course material better fits the instructor’s specific needs.
Furthermore, the survey asks specifically about course materials. Of respondents using the new workbook, 82% agreed or strongly agreed that “The course materials were helpful in meeting course objectives,” an increase from users of the previous textbook at 60%. This supports the argument that the new $9 textbook was of equal or higher quality than the standard marketplace option. In this case, cost and quality of the material do not correlate.
Conclusions and Recommendations
There’s a lot of noise about the cost of higher education, including textbooks, and there are a lot of seemingly opposing solutions. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the conversation. But this is one answer.
Textbook prices have increased by 800% over the last 30 years. It’s hard to believe and even harder to assert that their quality has increased to the same extent. Meanwhile, this workbook cost students $9, a major savings. It was a slapdash, print on demand workbook with no critical assessment or review process, and it received better student responses than the leading marketplace alternative.
There is a lesson here for everyone with a stake in educational materials. If an instructor can spend one summer creating something more effective than the leading textbook in the marketplace, we had better get behind these instructors. And who is better equipped to support rough-and-ready course material alternatives than libraries, universities, and publishers? If 65% of students are choosing to completely forego purchasing a required course material due to the cost, then the current system has failed. It’s time to wake up to the radical alternatives instructors are creating and start supporting them.