San Jacinto College has coined its own name for accessible, affordable higher education: Open Books.
This spring, when the College moved to online/hybrid instruction to promote social distancing, it already had Open Books in its toolkit. As health and financial concerns loomed, the initiative answered the call for accessible course materials that would also be easy on wallets.
Aside from helping many students during the College's altered operations, Open Books has covered much ground since its early days.
Let's talk achievements
Launched in 2017, the College's Open Books initiative combats rising print textbook costs. It helps students overcome higher education cost barriers through budget-friendly digital alternatives to textbooks.
Early on, the College predicted students would save $3.5 million from 2017-2020 through Open Books courses. But according to recent data, students have saved triple that: $10.6 million.
Open Books enrollment has also skyrocketed. In spring 2017, 768 students enrolled in these courses. By fall 2019, duplicated enrollment reached almost 36,000 in Open Books, Plus, and Low $ courses.
Niki Whiteside, assistant vice chancellor of instructional innovation and support, credits growing student awareness and faculty adoption. The College has sent faculty to open educational resources — or OER — conferences, brought in speakers, and provided other resources to boost adoption.
From spring 2017 to spring 2020, the College has offered more than 5,350 Open Books, Plus, and Low $ course sections taught by nearly 600 faculty members.
"The faculty are the ones choosing to do this. We're just paving the way," said Whiteside, whose instructional designers facilitate Open Books adoption. "It's about equity for students — every student having the opportunity (to attend college)."
"Opportunity" extended to the College's COVID-19 response. As Whiteside's team helped faculty move instruction online, Open Books eased the transition for many students.
"We faced the obvious challenges of flipping the classroom format and ensuring students had home internet access," Whiteside said. "But for courses starting midsemester, faculty who chose to use Open Books ensured students didn't have to purchase more materials or wait for textbooks to arrive by mail."
Explain the concept
Open Books instructor and South Campus department chair of English, modern languages, and speech Kimberly Miller-Davis defines OER as "instructor-created, shared resources that are available, accessible, and adaptable for instructors and students."
Higher education institutions have experimented with OER since early internet days. Open Books, which extends beyond OER, started with an Achieve the Dream grant. Later, San Jacinto College partnered with Rice University's OpenStax program.
Students may choose from three Open Books course types:
Open Books Plus launched in spring 2019, and Low $ in summer 2019.
The course description shows whether a class is Open Books (or Plus/Low $). When the course starts, materials are accessible via web browser or the Blackboard learning management portal.
What about challenges?
While Open Books offers many pluses, adoption challenges still exist.
One challenge is course options. Open Books classes are mainly general education, not niche studies like petrochemical and health science. But this is changing as more instructors ask publishers to provide less expensive specialized materials.
Whiteside says it's important to remember, though, that the textbook supplements the instructor, not vice versa.
"We rely on faculty to vet materials and make sure it's covering what they need," she said. "Faculty are the primary source of knowledge in the class."
Another challenge is providing only the content students need: Less is more.
San Jacinto College has worked to improve material accessibility. Through its Rice OpenStax partnership, the College has converted more than 40 OER general education textbooks into ready-to-load content for the Blackboard learning management system. These materials are then available to any other institution that adopts OpenStax.
"Our team is chunking the material by chapter so students have access only to the material they need and so faculty can more easily adapt the content for their course," Whiteside said. "It puts everything in one place — so we don't send students off on a scavenger hunt."
According to Miller-Davis, an instructional challenge is ensuring students engage with a screen as well as they would a printed page.
"We have to teach students how to read deeply on the screen," she said. "They're used to skimming and scanning online."
Relevance, convenience are perks
Despite some bumps along the way, Open Books has proven a win-win for faculty and students.
With a print textbook, Miller-Davis uses only some chapters and skips around. With Open Books, however, she can create exactly what she needs.
As one of the College's early adopters, Miller-Davis has seen other faculty members embrace Open Books when they realize it removes cost barriers to education and can be tailored to fit each unique student group.
"When we really talk to students about what they learned, they learn more and retain more when it's relevant to their lives," she said. "Traditional textbooks don't have that same immediacy and relevance."
San Jacinto College graduate Fernanda Olvera learned about Open Books classes during new student orientation. In no time, the associate degree business major bought into the idea of eliminating a $100-plus textbook per class.
"At first, it didn't seem like that big of a necessity, but it started determining which classes and professors I took," she said.
Working while attending school, Olvera downloaded materials to her laptop or accessed them via phone browser app. Taking five Open Books classes, she estimates she saved almost a semester of tuition.
"It's a great resource. There really are no downsides to it," she said. "I can see
how some people are used to regular textbooks, but it's a lot more convenient, especially
if you're funding your own education."