By Adria Carpenter
In 2001, an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota would’ve expected to spend $730 for textbooks and supplies. Today, those materials will cost upwards of $1,000.
To offset these costs, the University of Minnesota Libraries is helping replace commercial textbooks with openly-licensed materials across the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses.
Atilla Hallsby is one of 15 instructors working with the Libraries’ Partnership for Affordable Learning Materials (PALM) program. He teaches rhetoric in the Communication Studies department and researches transparency, secrecy, and surveillance.
“Open textbooks are a way of practicing transparency in a way that is deeply meaningful, especially in the time where books are getting banned and educational materials are being taken off of curricula,” Hallsby said. “It really does dovetail with my own research, and it’s a big reason why I do it.”
Building a low-cost classroom
It’s no secret that college textbooks are getting more and more expensive. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for textbooks has increased 140.47 percent from December 2001 to June 2023, nearly double the 71.27 percent increase in CPI for all items during that same period.
To make his class less costly, Hallsby decided to create a blog-format website to host his course materials at the onset of the pandemic. The site collected chapters from the textbook, his Google docs, lesson plans, video lectures, secondary readings, assignments. class agendas, and more.
“It was really a labor of compassion for students that were seeking a greater degree of engagement with teaching materials, rather than people just speaking to them via Zoom and expecting more from them,” he said.
The initial version left some students feeling overwhelmed with materials. The website was transparent but not accessible or attune to students’ needs or learning styles. With PALM’s help, Hallsby reorganized the information and centralized his website within the Libraries, which made it comprehensible and lended more credibility to the project.
“The folks who are working in the PALM unit in the Libraries, they are amazing.”
“Transparency and accessibility have to go hand-in-hand, in order to ensure that people are getting the education that they deserve and access to the information that they need,” Hallsby said.
This work laid the foundation for his free textbook, Reading Rhetorical Theory, released on Aug. 22, 2022, which he wrote and edited over the course of two years alongside PALM. But Hallsby still uses the companion website, The Rhetoric UnTextbook, which has continuously evolved with student feedback.
“Students really appreciate the fact that it is free. They appreciate the fact that it is searchable. They appreciate that it’s easy to navigate,” he said. “They like the multiple modality aspect of it. They like the fact that they can watch, listen, read, and it gives them different kinds of retention.”
Both the free textbook and website have allowed students to develop a “deeper love of communication studies and rhetoric.” Some students listen to the textbook while walking across campus, treating it like a podcast. And as students progress through their coursework, they keep returning to the website.
And it’s not just UMN students who benefit. Fifteen different institutions use Hallsby’s textbook in introductory communication and rhetoric classes, and even some private high schools have requested his instructional materials.
“The thing that is rewarding is when people have emailed me or approached me to say that this has been a tremendous help with their course preparation,” he said. “It is deeply gratifying in terms of being able to see a life for your pedagogical materials that otherwise might stay in a file folder somewhere. And it is an amazing way to develop a series of collaborative relationships around research and pedagogy.”
Knowledge for passion instead of profits
The other 14 PALM projects cover disciplines including biology, engineering, veterinary medicine, economics, music, dentistry, mathematics, and foreign languages.
Five projects are creation grants, where instructors create openly licensed content, like textbooks and lesson plans. The rest are adaptation grants, which help instructors implement existing open education resources into their classrooms.
Gjeltema estimates that the creation and adaptation projects will impact around 9,100 students a year and will save students approximately $183,000, based on most recent semester enrollment figures and the cost of previously assigned textbooks in each course.
Around 1,200 students will enroll in classes that are replacing a commercial textbook, which will save roughly $150 per student, per course annually, based on that $183,000 figure.
“Whole majors might be priced out for students who can’t afford chemistry textbooks but maybe could afford another discipline,” Gjeltema said. “If we can get some momentum in moving instructors to these open education practices, we can really have a great impact on the student experience.”
Gjeltema hopes that PALM will counter the idea that knowledge is commercial, and that PALM will give instructors more options outside of the traditional textbook publishing system, where publishers receive a larger share of profits than the author.
Under an open license, instructors still retain their intellectual property rights, but they share it in a non-commercial, less restrictive manner, he explained. Gjeltema wants to incentivize the academic world to adopt a knowledge sharing economy based on need, interest, and passion, instead of individual finances.
Work shared freely will save time and energy for instructors, allowing them to build off the work of others, tailor it for their own needs and objectives, and promote “intellectual cross-pollination.”
“We in a university environment are surrounded by so many brilliant people and brilliant students who are doing such incredible work, and it’s so much more productive to share that work,” Gjeltema said. “It’s no longer necessary to reinvent the wheel.”
Some PALM projects will be completed in the 2023-24 academic year, while others have a longer timeline. As the program develops, Gjeltema is hopeful PALM will receive continued support and funding to take on new projects and ensure their sustainability.
Instructors interested in open education resources generally or PALM specifically can contact Gjeltema at email@example.com to learn about available options and practices.
“The folks who are working in the PALM unit in the Libraries, they are amazing. They are heroes as far as I’m concerned … I can’t say enough good things about them,” Hallsby said. “They are very much a supportive community. And for folks who are looking for a community around pedagogy, PALM is definitely a place to find it.”