Faculty Textbook Affordability Survey Yields Report, Charleston Panel

Library Journal asked academic faculty how they viewed their roles in addressing textbook affordability in a recent survey sponsored by Taylor & Francis.

When Library Journal published the report on its 2019 Textbook Affordability Survey, sponsored by Taylor & Francis Group, the results sparked interest across campuses and throughout college and university libraries. The survey asked academic librarians who are responsible for acquiring print and digital materials about textbook cost challenges, trends, and possible solutions. One of the survey’s primary areas of focus involved looking at how, and to what extent, librarians worked with faculty members to address rising textbook costs.

Solutions surfaced included selecting open educational resources (OER), suggesting or selecting course materials, and creating course reading or course lists. On average, as reported by the responding libraries, 19 percent of faculty currently work with library staff to reduce textbooks costs, and nearly two-thirds of the respondents felt that number is growing.

Curious to discover how faculty viewed their roles in addressing textbook affordability, LJ and Taylor & Francis developed a complementary survey, “Academic Faculty: Textbook and Course Materials Affordability Survey Report 2019.” The survey sought to determine the level of concern college faculty have about course material affordability issues, and whether they are currently using digital resources—particularly in collaboration with their library—to help reduce coursework costs. Respondents hailed mainly from a mixture of public and private four-year institutions.

The survey yielded a report of its own (download it here), and together the two halves of the overview generated a panel discussion, “Driving Textbook Affordability: Bridging the Gap between Faculty and Librarian in the Selection of OER,” at the 2019 Charleston Library Conference on November 6.

 

DIFFERING PERCEPTIONS

While insights differed between faculty and librarians at several junctures, there were a number of areas they agreed on. When asked to what degree course material affordability is an issue for their institution, in contrast to how much those costs concern students, both sides recognized a discrepancy. Nearly all librarians—95 percent—believed that it was a major concern for students, yet slightly over two thirds (68 percent) felt that it was a high priority concern for the institutions themselves. Faculty perceived a smaller gap, with 87 percent citing coursework costs as a major concern for students, while 73 percent said that course material affordability is a major concern for faculty when making selections.

When asked to identify barriers to digital resource information, however, answers showed some surprising splits. While 81 percent of the librarians surveyed claimed that faculty felt too much time and effort were required to build needed resources, only 34 percent of faculty members had the same complaints. Two thirds of librarians also stated that faculty members felt the unavailability of materials they wanted in digital format were a stumbling block, although only 30 percent of faculty respondents said the same. Additional concerns for faculty, which were given numeric weight in the second survey after they proved to be repeated write-ins in the librarian survey, included internet connectivity issues for students—highest among community college faculty—a lack of focus among students when reading digital texts, institutional license restrictions, and a lack of quality in OER.

A number of other write-in answers to the librarian survey became choices on the faculty version. When asked how the library interacts with faculty, the top two faculty answers—visiting class to provide instructional support for use of course materials and purchasing course reserves—had not been choices on the first survey. Out of the available options, librarians had given the most weight to creating course reading/resource lists and suggesting/selecting course materials. Over one third of the faculty surveyed said they didn’t have any interaction with the campus library.

When it comes to digital resources, the library response was tied between acquiring new materials to supplement or replace a textbook and suggesting or selecting OER, closely followed with curating existing library materials to supplement or replace a textbook. The least cited service, a write-in by nine percent of the library respondents, was making course reserves available.

That same service, however, was the number one answer to the question when posed to faculty, followed by providing course reading or resource list tools and acquiring new materials to supplement or replace a textbook. Looking at the two surveys side by side, it becomes apparent that many libraries are working with open access projects that faculty are unaware of; nearly half of the library respondents said that they aided faculty by finding, vetting, and curating open access publications from other institutions, while only 18 percent of faculty were aware of, or used, that service. A similar gap could be seen between the library’s work making faculty members’ own publications available open access—an activity that 39 percent of librarians stated they engaged in, but only 22 percent of faculty took advantage of.

 

BUILDING SOLUTIONS

Discoverability proved to be a major problem facing librarians and faculty—both of the services offered and OER materials themselves. At the Charleston Panel, Taylor & Francis director of library marketing Michelle Rivera-Spann and senior marketing manager Emilie Littlehales were joined by George Hart, director of libraries at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Donna Shaw, EBSCO director of product management.

The panelists discussed strategies adopted by institutions and libraries to help address textbook affordability, as well as game plans that libraries and faculty can adopt to increase opportunities for collaboration and methods of assessing their success. EBSCO Faculty Select, an interface that allows faculty to search and access quality open textbooks, OER, and unrestricted library ebooks from academic publishers, was discussed as a solution.

Shaw began by outlining four problems facing both faculty and libraries on campus:

  • Cost: Textbook affordability is directly related to student success
  • Location: Resources are spread out across a wide range of sites, and faculty tend to stick with the status quo, such as Google or YouTube, and with their existing textbooks, because doing so is easier and quicker for them.
  • Communication: Keeping channels open between faculty and librarians can be challenging. Faculty aren’t seeking out librarians, and librarians often don’t have the insight into the resources faculty want to adopt.
  • Assessment: Tracking usage of library resources is necessary to prove the value of those resources and materials.

These factors are interrelated, noted Rivera-Spann and Littlehales. Although cost is an often-cited barrier, faculty are also concerned with finding the best possible materials, as opposed to the most affordable. A fair amount of uncertainty exists when it comes to the value of digital resources. The fact that 35 percent of faculty selected “none of the above” when asked about the ways they interact with the campus library is significant.

The library is not top of mind for faculty, explained Littlehales, and they are more likely to turn to the open web for resources, or order a book from Amazon if they can’t immediately find a digital resource they need. Library outreach isn’t registering. But affordability is a component of access for many—if not most—students, she added. What would help libraries and faculty work more closely together to help stem the cost of course materials?

EBSCO Faculty Select tries to address these challenges, noted Shaw, making resources available to faculty who in turn make them available to students. As an example of how this product and other offerings can augment campus textbook affordability initiatives, Hart described how, at UMass Lowell, he has been using his own methodology to develop and implement a No-Lo (no cost–low cost) textbook program, which he launched using a portion of an unlimited-use ebook budget.

Hart began looking for “low-hanging fruit” in May 2019, beginning by looking at the next semester’s course list and identifying multi-section, high-enrollment offerings. He checked the campus bookstore, looking for expensive books to target, and then searched for alternatives. In addition to EBSCO Faculty Select, which helps faculty make high-quality open resources available to students, he used EBSCO’s GOBI to acquire unrestricted ebooks for more specialized courses, and he explored the school’s integrated library system (ILS) for material embedded in existing subscriptions.

Hart then shared samples of the resources he uncovered with each course’s professor, linking to previews in Faculty Select titles and ebooks in the library catalog so they could see what was available, noting that ebooks could be purchased using department tech fees. If he got a nibble, he said, he would “upsell a libguide” listing additional resources, using Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) to then add the libguide to the school’s learning management system shell, thus creating a new, usable asset in the institution’s inventory and, in essence, creating a new No-Lo textbook. Hart was able to provide materials for courses as varied as Public Health, Probability and Statistics for Engineers, Business Ethics, and Crime and the Media.

As he continues to refine and expand his efforts, Hart offered a few takeaways. It’s better to own ebooks than license them, he pointed out, with unlimited ebook licenses the lowest cost rentals; true OER texts can be costly. Make sure to build in enough time for faculty to preview the materials—and be forewarned that humanities courses will tend to have the longest wish lists of texts from faculty.

EBSCO representatives at the event also noted that they were working with content providers to enhance accessibility features.

As acceptance of electronic resources rises among both faculty and students, there is a great deal of room for proactive responses from both the faculty and library sides when it comes to addressing rising textbook costs. While faculty and libraries often work well together, there still exist areas of contention and missed opportunities, and the two should be encouraged to communicate and cooperate more closely. Initiatives such as Hart’s can build bridges, in addition to offering faculty and students useful options.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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