Embedded Digital Resources Are Replacing Traditional Textbooks At UMUC

The Move Means Greater Access and Lower Costs for Students

For the first time, a major American university is replacing textbooks with no-cost digital resources.

As of this fall, UMUC has moved away from publisher textbooks to no-cost digital resources embedded in most courses, saving each UMUC undergraduate student hundreds of dollars a session—potentially thousands over the course of the degree.

By the fall of 2016, most of UMUC’s graduate classes will be textbook-free, too. The collective savings is estimated to be in the millions for the more than 80,000 students taking classes at UMUC annually.

“There has been a real push to create these first-rate no-cost resources, which are written and designed by content experts and faculty, so that knowledge is not locked away in expensive textbooks,” said UMUC Provost Marie Cini.

Turning such a vast university into a textbook-free zone, though, has been no small task, said Thomas C. Bailey, UMUC’s acting associate dean of Academic Affairs, who coordinated the undergraduate changeover.

By pioneering a textbook-free shift on such a large scale, UMUC had no role model to follow.

“That was part of the learning process,” Bailey added. “We didn’t have a playbook to go by. We were flying the plane while putting it together.”

Higher education is beginning to take notice. The Open Education Consortium recently recognized UMUC with its 2015 President’s Award, which is given to an individual or institution that shows exceptional leadership and commitment to open-source education.

The first phase of the plan was completed last fall, when about 40 percent of undergraduate courses began using open educational resources (OER) and other types of no-cost resources.

The change was prompted in part by the rising cost of textbooks combined with opportunities now available to find and access peer-reviewed content and information in specialized databases and other digital sources.

“It has almost gotten to the point where textbooks are as expensive as the cost of a class,” Bailey said. “That becomes a barrier when students are shelling out that much money to try to better themselves or get [ahead] in the work world.”

Bailey said many students have told him by the third or fourth week of class that they just couldn’t afford to buy the textbook. “That puts a student at a disadvantage right from the start.”

So aside from saving students money, the shift to no-cost embedded resources also helps UMUC ensure that all students have access—right from day one—to the materials they need to successfully complete every class.

The effort of identifying digital resources was performed by teams in each discipline comprising a program chair, a faculty member or two, a librarian, and a member of the Design Solutions office, all specializing in course development.

“The beauty of our approach was that it wasn’t just one person somewhere searching to see if they could find something. It was a coordinated effort by all the different areas of expertise we needed,” Bailey said.

Adapting materials to meet the needs and approach of each UMUC course took considerable thought and research. Once identified, resources were released to the faculty who teach in that subject area so they could provide their own input, he added.

Karen Hogan, an adjunct associate professor in Information Systems Management, helped guide the conversion of Information Systems in Organizations (IFSM 300). “This is a high-enrollment class that serves as the foundation course for IFSM majors and as a technology literacy course for other students,” she said.

“The UMUC librarians suggested use of an e-textbook that was available on the Saylor open resources site. While another faculty member was evaluating it, he located a different e-textbook that fit the course content very well.” That framework was then supplemented with other web-based resources and course design. “I reviewed all [the materials] that our faculty had used in their classes and selected several to be included,” Hogan said.

“The UMUC support staff ported and revised several course modules that we had used … and learning activities developed by UMUC were also incorporated.”

Catherine Campbell, a collegiate associate professor in Marketing, said that the challenge in searching for the right no-cost digital resources for the Marketing Principles (MRKT 310) class was to find materials that were at least as effective as the interactive material provided by the textbook.

“Fortunately, marketing principles have not changed significantly over the years, and there were multiple [digital resources] available from which to build the course,” she said.

Finding case studies to replace the ones provided by the Harvard Business School for an advanced marketing course proved to be more difficult, Campbell said.

“Cases of this caliber and quantity do not exist online and for no charge,” she said. “We had to totally rethink our strategy.”

Knowing that the course needed to replicate a real-world marketing experience, her team worked to create its own so UMUC students could begin with individual research and analysis, move to team planning and assessment, and finally present their marketing strategy.

Both Campbell and Hogan said the work not only resulted in course savings for students but also gave everyone involved in the process a chance to rethink their approach to the courses and to draw on the wealth of available digital resources.

The process had an additional benefit beyond cost savings and increased access for students. Because it involved so many different types of people, it helped bring the university’s disparate parts together, Bailey said. Faculty members were the content experts, but they had to have input on everything from copyright, online accessibility and adaptability, and assessing students’ learning.

“You don’t do this alone,” he said. “You reach out and build some bridges to people who may not have come into your work scheme before.”

Perhaps a half-dozen courses required copyrighted material that is unavailable at no cost, he said. “For the rest we found a wealth of high-quality materials out there, especially in the Creative Commons area that people have developed,” he said. “It rivals some of the best textbooks.”

Reaction from the faculty was mixed, Bailey said. It took a while for many veteran faculty members to get used to the idea that they would not have a textbook. But newer professors don’t see doing away with textbooks as an issue because they were not using them yet anyway, he added.

So, initially, while some were not overly enthusiastic, others viewed the shift as a breath of fresh air, Bailey said. “They weren’t stuck by the confines of a textbook where they feel obligated to use it because the students bought them.”

The key to the ultimate success of open educational resources, he said, will be to continually solicit faculty input to find out where the bugs are and how improvements can be made.

In the meantime, the move to no-cost digital resources embedded in courses promises a big payoff. A head-to-head study just completed by Hogan’s team comparing courses offered with textbooks to those offered with embedded resources showed the learning outcomes were the same … and the students saved millions.