UM-Flint Librarians on a Mission to Save Students Money on Textbooks

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Matt Wolverton and Bob Houbeck
Matt Wolverton and Bob Houbeck

An effort led by UM-Flint’s Frances Willson Thompson Library might soon make student textbooks more affordable.

Or free.

“We realized there were a lot of students, particularly international students, who weren’t prepared to spend $1,200 on textbooks,” said library director Bob Houbeck.

“It caused us to think, is there something we can do to help faculty identify low-cost, high-quality textbooks for their students?”

Houbeck and Matt Wolverton, an electronic resource management and reference librarian, started looking into how they could get textbooks for more students, especially in disciplines like math and science where textbooks can cost about $300.

They knew pretty quickly that what they were after were digital textbooks. To buy enough textbooks for students to use on-site, through the Library’s reserve system—and to update them each year as new editions came out—would just be too costly.

Wolverton decided to experiment with OpenStax, an open source digital textbook initiative affiliated with Rice University. A benefit of using OpenStax is that, in addition to offering free online textbooks, students can also purchase low-cost hard copies.

OpenStax has textbooks, mostly for introductory courses, for areas including math, science, history, and psychology.

The “Textbook Affordability Initiative” is now in its second year as a pilot project. This fall, five math courses will use free OpenStax digital textbooks. It is anticipated that about 900 students will enroll in these five courses, and they will save an average of $200 per student in avoided textbook costs.

Houbeck, Wolverton, and math subject specialist librarian Kui-Bin Im are working with math faculty to assess instructor and student experience with OpenStax digital textbooks. Librarians will also be collaborating with the faculty of other departments to help them identify free open-source or lower cost textbook alternatives.

Houbeck said he thinks finding free or cheaper versions will do more for students than just making it easier on their pocketbooks or the stress that comes with spending more money.

Because of the high cost of textbooks, he said, “There are a lot of students who don’t buy textbooks and try to get by without them.”

Not an ideal learning situation.

Moving forward, Wolverton and Houbeck have more ideas. The Frances Willson Thompson Library has access to a lot of digital materials, many of which can be used as textbooks. So their next step will be to create a database in which faculty members can browse those digital stacks, looking for books that would fit their instructional needs while offering a savings to students.

“Our faculty is really sensitive to the cost of textbooks, but it can be time-consuming for them to find low-cost options,” Houbeck said. “What we as librarians can do for them is to assemble and maintain an array of potential candidate texts so that they can select the option that is best for their students.”

Scott Atkinson is a writer for UM-Flint University Relations and teaches writing.