First day of classes at BYU 01

Students make their way to their classes at Brigham Young University on Aug. 29, 2016, for their first day of school for the semester. SAMMY JO HESTER, Daily Herald

In a result that will make college students rejoice, a group of researchers at Brigham Young University have found that a free textbook is just as effective as an expensive one.

BYU’s Open Education Group studies open educational resources, free and open-access educational resources they’ve found that can teach students just as well as paid resources.

The group’s research not only showed that students using the free materials do just as well, and in some cases better, than if they were using a pricey textbook, but that the students were also more likely to stick in a course and not drop out.

For low-income students at community colleges, open educational resources might be an effective resource for keeping more students in school.

Lane Fischer, a BYU counseling psychology and special education chair and member of the Open Education Group, said many students will wait to buy their textbooks until weeks after classes begin when their financial aid comes or until they decide they need the textbook for the course. By the time the students get their books, they’re behind and might drop the course.

“That cycle continues for these folks who have lower educational resources,” Fischer said. “This is our most vulnerable group who most need an education and we are making them slow down and hurting them in the process.”

At community colleges, the price of textbooks can be half of the price a student pays for their education.

Fischer said the cost of textbooks over time, compared to inflation, has grown astronomically and that the textbook market in general doesn’t follow traditional supply and demand.

“It is a broken economic system because the normal laws of supply and demand don’t apply,” said John Hilton III, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU and member of the Open Education Group. “The professor doesn’t have to pay for it, and the students don’t have a say in which one they chose.”

Fisher said about half of professors know how much their required textbooks cost.

Students can easily spend $1,000 a year on textbooks. The BYU researchers have done studies where they ask students what they’d spend that money on if they didn’t have to buy textbooks. They’ve heard responses where moms have said they’ve had to decide between spending the money on textbooks or diapers.

“If students perform just as well without the textbooks, it is like giving every student a $1,000 scholarship if students are using open education resources,” Hilton said.

With new editions constantly coming out in subjects that don’t change, like algebra, once a student buys a textbook, a new edition can make it nearly impossible to sell the used one.

A survey the group performed found that 91 percent of BYU’s faculty would be willing to use open educational resources for their classes.

Some professors don’t use the free resources because they don’t know about them, but the research group also realizes that not every class has open educational resources available for it. Yet.

The nontraditional copyright on open educational resources means anyone can use them, but it also means people are free to edit and rework the materials, personalizing them for a class.

When Hilton taught a psychology course in China as a visiting professor, he used an open textbook that had already been revised by another professor to make it easier to understand for students who have English as their second language.

The research is already leading to change. It helped sway a 2016 decision by the California Legislature to allocate $5 million to develop open educational resources and another $180 million for community colleges to work on the open resources. That money will help fund degrees at 20 community colleges in California that won’t require students to purchase textbooks.

The group also received the 2017 Excellence in Research Award from the International Open Education Consortium.

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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