Digital course content saved students $5.6 million in 2020-21

Student savings from digital course content increased sharply this year, boosted in part by the temporary pandemic-driven shift to online instruction. 

Thanks to faculty using free open educational resources (OER) or lower-cost digital materials through ISU Book Store's immediate access program, students this fall and spring paid a combined $5.6 million less than they would have spent buying a physical textbook or the course materials OER replaced.

That's $1.8 million more than the 2019-20 savings through OER and immediate access, a well-timed gain given the financial difficulties many students and their families have faced during the pandemic, said Abbey Elder, open access and scholarly communication librarian.

"The cost of textbooks became insurmountable for a lot more students this year," she said.

Digital becoming the norm

Interested in immediate access?

Any course material students are required to buy likely can be offered via immediate access. Interested faculty should contact Heather Dean or John Wierson at the ISU Book Store. To aid negotiations, consult with the bookstore before informing a publisher about a selected textbook.  

About $5 million of the savings came from immediate access, which provides digital versions of commercially published course materials at steep discounts off the shelf price. That's up from $3.5 million the year before and $2.5 million in 2018-19, a spike that ISU Book Store assistant director Heather Dean attributes partially to increased faculty familiarity due to the pivot online. But immediate access was already on an upward swing, she said.

That's not solely because of the lower costs for students. Materials are automatically delivered via Canvas to every enrolled student, unless they proactively opt out, so instructors are assured all students will have the course content, publishers enjoy higher per-class sales rates and the process is more convenient for students.

"It is becoming more of the norm," Dean said. "I'm grateful our program was already established before the pandemic."

As more faculty use immediate access, the savings mount. The bookstore negotiates immediate access costs with publishers, and more courses adds leverage, Dean said.

"The more we participate, the lower we can get the prices," she said. 

Added experience

Interested in OER?

Faculty interested in open education resources should contact Abbey Elder at the University Library. Consultations are available. Apply online for a Miller Open Education Mini-Grant by April 18.  

Students savings via OER also hit a new high this year at a little more than $550,000, Elder said. That's up from about $275,000 in 2019-20 and nearly $120,000 in 2018-19. 

Elder said about one-third of the savings over those three years come from courses that benefited from a Miller Open Education Mini-Grant, an annual program to help faculty select, adapt or create OER. Mini-grant projects were the main source of increased savings this year, she said.

The pandemic set the stage for future OER growth. As part of the increased reliance on online instruction during the pandemic, faculty for the first time were required to have a presence on Canvas for each course. Additional exposure to the learning management system and the experience and training faculty received in adapting curriculum for online instruction could have a lasting impact. Elder said she's noticed a difference in the applications for this year's round of mini-grants, which are due April 18. 

"A lot more people are being thoughtful about what it takes to do this work now that they've been through the online pivot. They've developed modular content to put their courses on Canvas," Elder said.  

Broad cooperation

Elder and Dean co-chair the university's open and affordable education committee, which encourages use of free and low-cost course materials to support innovative teaching methods. It's rewarding to see those efforts pay off, Dean said. 

"I feel like we're making a huge dent in solving the problem of textbook prices," she said.

In addition to OER and immediate access, the University Library's course reserves service makes class content available to students for free. Library staff supported 133 courses with the service in the fall semester alone, Elder said.

The affordability initiative takes cooperation from a wide variety of partners beyond the bookstore and library, including the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, information technology services, procurement and accounts receivable, Dean said.

"There's a huge network of people on campus making this happen," she said.