Online Texts for Community College Students

Initiative aims to create and evaluate material, while also assessing the viability of the open access model.
April 29, 2008

Plenty of professors are thinking about ways of introducing alternatives to traditional textbooks that they or their students deem too pricey. Some are involved in efforts to create material that is online, free and open source in design. A new effort announced Monday aims to help this movement grow at community colleges.

As Judy Baker, dean of the distance learning program at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, sees it, not enough people are focusing on compiling content tailored to two-year college students.

"We have more economic and racial diversity than the normal population, so it's even more important for content to be culturally relevant and meaningful," Baker said. "It's important for faculty to be able to localize the information, and because our students are not always as prepared for a college-level textbook that comes from the publishers, we need to provide supplemental information."

And then there's the issue of cost.

"Community college students don't have a lot of discretionary income, and we're always looking at ways to cut their expenses," Baker added.

This week, dozens of professors from colleges across the country are meeting with representatives from nonprofit groups and for-profit companies that are in the digital textbook market to talk about ways of developing and promoting online content.

The first phase of the "Community College Open Textbook Project" is being funded by a one-year, $500,000-plus grant to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

As part of the project, community college professors will receive training on how to find and customize material. One objective is for participants to create online textbooks, largely culled from existing resources, in high-demand courses such as statistics.

Baker, director of the project, is also bringing together professors to review the academic quality of the material, with the idea of coming away with peer-reviewed textbooks. These are faculty members who are part of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, a group that has met since last summer and operates a Web site for faculty looking to get information about open access textbooks.

"One of the drawbacks to open textbooks is that no one has ever reviewed the material, and in some cases you don't know if a student can use the course to transfer to the university level," said Baker, who spent more than a decade teaching at a doctoral granting university.

Part of the project involves developing a research design to measure students' learning outcomes. For instance, how do students in the statistics course using an online textbook fare when measured against peers using traditional material?

The goal is for participants to discuss several models for developing and producing the material, and by next year produce a report that outlines the financial viability of the various methods.

"No one knows at this point what will work and what won't work," Baker said.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said in an interview earlier this month that he applauds "any faculty member or group that is willing to make that level of commitment to provide a free textbook."

But he said that content creators need to think about how to keep information current, offer supplemental educational tools and make sure that the cost of instruction doesn’t rise with the use of the online material.

Last summer, Foothill-De Anza's Board of Trustees adopted a resolution supporting the use of online, open source textbooks. Baker said that means that if you're a professor going up for tenure, colleagues who are evaluating you will understand that providing students with alternative textbooks is acceptable.


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