NCSU Libraries Spur Innovation Through Alt-Textbook Grants

This fall, as part of a $10,000 grant program funded by the NC State University Foundation, NCSU Libraries has invited faculty members to develop alternative course materials. The Alt-Textbook Project is a competitive grant for faculty members to develop free or low-cost alternates to traditional textbooks using open source material.
ncsuNorth Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries has a reputation for innovative practices. This fall, as part of a $10,000 grant program funded by the NC State University Foundation, NCSU Libraries has invited faculty members to develop alternative course materials. The Alt-Textbook Project is a competitive grant for faculty members to develop free or low-cost alternates to traditional textbooks using open source material. All current faculty members who will be teaching in the spring or fall 2015 semesters are eligible to apply. The Libraries’ call for proposals asks applicants to provide a description of their project in 500 words or less, including a description of the textbook’s intended use, what will make it innovative and successful, how it will be accessed, anticipated challenges, and a basic cost analysis. Projects may take several forms: creating a new text to fit specific course needs; adapting an existing open or print textbook; assembling a collection of open resource materials; licensing an e-textbook, video, or other content for classroom or e-reserve use; or making use of subscribed library resources. Proposals are due October 20, and the judges—which include the NCSU Office of Faculty Development, faculty members, students,  and a representative from Distance Education & Learning Technology Applications  (DELTA)—will be looking for strong applications that demonstrate pedagogical innovation, a level of sustainability for future courses, savings for students, and a realistic plan that could be implemented within the timeline. William Cross, director of NCSU’s Copyright and Digital Scholarship Center and the project’s administrator, first proposed the idea in 2013. He believed that an incentive for faculty to adopt Open Education Resources (OERs) made sense in light of system-wide budget cuts to the university’s libraries, as well as the rising cost of traditional textbooks; students spend an average of $1,200 a year on textbooks, and seven out of ten students have admitted to not purchasing needed texts because of the cost. Cross strongly encourages participating faculty members to collaborate with the libraries for help with areas such as communications, metadata, CMS use, and subject-specific concerns. In addition, the Copyright and Digital Scholarship Center will be available to offer guidance on licensing issues. An online guide to Open Educational Resources, compiled by NCSU librarians, provides links to open textbook collections and publishers, repositories, and subject-specific collections, as well as resources such as WikiEducator and the Open Educational Resources Toolkit. “We have made it a point to emphasize to faculty over and over: we have people here who can help you,” Cross told LJ. “It’s right at the heart of what we do.”


The grants will be needs-based, disbursed in amounts ranging from $500–$2,000: $500 to pay a graduate student for research, or $2,000 for a more technologically advanced project, and, Cross says, “wiggle room if we get one amazing project.” He spoke with more than 60 faculty members about their potential proposals at a recent information session offered by the NCSU Office of Faculty Development, and was impressed by the projects discussed. Several ideas involved social media platforms that students are already excited about or using. One education professor proposed licensing simulations online, using the Creativity Studio in the James B. Hunt Jr. Library, a “white-box” space with high-definition projectors and movable, writable walls. Associate Professor Michael Evans had been approached by a publisher asking for a mid-length text on digitally mediated learning, and hoped to make it open access after an initial year’s embargo. Evans, who is interested in ways that K-12 educational techniques can be adapted for higher education, finds it hard to find traditional textbooks that fit his subject. Professor Andrew Cooper feels that “we shouldn’t be making students choose between rent and books.” He has proposed an alt-textbook that serves both mathematics and mathematics education majors, which would include material serving both populations and an automatic grading feedback system.


The initiative owes much of its popularity to NCSU’s 2010 adoption of a free physics e-textbook, Physics Fundamentals by Dr. Vincent Coletta, Professor of Physics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, which some 1,300 NCSU students use every year. While the print book sold for $150 to $190, the open access version is available free of charge to all students, faculty, and staff through the libraries’ website, with hard copies available for a small additional fee. Still, Cross explains, Physics Fundamentals was a more traditional project, taking an existing print text and making it free; “I hope that this will be the tip of the iceberg that will lead to more innovative stuff.” Similar mini-grant initiatives have proven popular in recent years. Temple University Libraries' Alternate Textbook Project was created in 2011 by Associate University Librarian (and LJ contributor) Steven Bell. Temple’s alt-textbook project completed its fourth round of submissions this past spring. The University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst launched its Open Education Initiative in March 2011, awarding 10 faculty members $1,000 each; the initial funding was provided by the UMass Amherst director of libraries and the provost, who each personally contributed $5,000. Both Temple and Amherst have been very generous in sharing their experiences, says Cross. “Micro-funding is one of the ways that NC State fosters innovation,” explained Laurie Reinhardt-Plotnik, Associate Vice Chancellor for University Development and Vice President for Development of the NC State University Foundation. “This grant program is one of several micro-funding opportunities on campus that foster the entrepreneurial thinking and activity that characterize our university.… This type of seed funding enables ideas like the alt-textbook project, a creative solution to a real world problem, to take flight.” Judging by attendance at the two information sessions, the number of proposals will no doubt exceed the available grant money. Cross hopes to be able to encourage even the faculty members who don’t get grants, pointing them toward the resources for their projects. “My hope is that even if we have to say no, we can still go forward and do some great things.”
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