The average college student now spends $1,000 annually on books and supplies, and growing numbers of universities are finally getting serious about student complaints over the cost of course materials. But at schools that are open to the idea of adopting free or low-cost alternatives to $200 textbooks, concerns about the quality and variety of electronic materials already on the market can be a major hurdle. To address that problem, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst recently launched the Open Education Initiative, which will award grants to faculty members seeking to develop low- or no-cost course materials as an alternative to traditional textbooks.
This year, UMass awarded eight faculty members a total of $10,000 in grants to develop their own course materials. Charles Schweik, an environmental conservation professor who says he participated because he believes "in the importance of attainable resources," published his own scholarly work in an open-access format. Schweik’s students can now read his coursepack for free online, or they can print a copy for $13.
Students like Chris Hewes welcome the shift. "I didn’t have to spend money on expensive textbooks or deal with the stress of finding materials online to ship to my dorm after classes started," Hewes says.
Other faculty members teamed up to create an online open-access lab that helps students use electronic texts and other streaming media already available in the UMass library system. In turn, the school’s librarians took the initiative to create a student guide to open education resources. Librarian Marilyn Billings says the project will eventually aim to make open education resources “accessible to anyone, anywhere.”
UMass estimates that its $10,000 investment will save students $72,000 over the next school year. Provost James V. Staros says the savings "directly benefit [students'] very real and very tight budgets." The initiative has been so successful that UMass plans to expand the project to 20 grants for the 2012-2013 school year.