PHILADELPHIA — When Natalie Flynn surveyed students in her Temple University intro to physical geology classes, she found half weren't buying the textbook she used.
Many couldn't afford it.
"We were developing a very, very uneven playing field in the classroom," she said.
That's when Flynn decided to phase out print textbooks from as many of her courses as possible. She's part of a small but growing effort at Temple to use or create online materials, including textbooks that are openly licensed and vetted — and perhaps most importantly, free to students.
Temple officials estimate the effort, which began in 2011 and has gotten buy-in from nearly 90 of the university's 3,850 full and part-time professors, has saved students $1 million.
In the last year, Temple in collaboration with its library and university press began giving professors $5,000 stipends and support to write their own free, open texts. Eight projects are underway via "North Broad Press," including a book being written by the criminal justice department for its intro course.
"We put it through peer review, copy editing and production," said Annie Johnson, Temple's library publishing specialist.
Many other colleges locally and nationally are taking similar steps to ease the burden of textbook costs, which can exceed $1,000 a year, according to some estimates.
"The goal is to try to create as much open content as possible," said Steven Bell, Temple's associate university librarian. "This isn't something that happens overnight. This is a long-term project, but we are seeing a revolution."
The move toward "Open Educational Resources" comes as print textbook sales continue to drop and rentals and e-book sales increase.
"We've seen textbook sales decrease by approximately 10% per year as students switch from buying new and used textbooks to using rentals, buying from alternative sources and embracing digital subscriptions," said Lori Friedman, a spokesperson for Lehigh University. "Textbook rentals now account for about 30% of our sales."
Some states, including New York, are funding efforts to make open resources more available to students. In Pennsylvania, academic libraries are pushing for state funding, as well as educating and training faculty about open resources, Bell said.
"Some ask why should faculty give away their intellectual content for free," Bell said. "For many faculty, it's a social justice issue, one of access."
At Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the student government in a letter last April implored faculty to address high textbook costs that impact students inequitably, citing "a great many cases in which students are either dissuaded from joining a class because of the textbook costs, develop an increased financial burden because they buy them regardless, or have to go to great lengths to develop alternative methods for acquiring the necessary materials."
The college, said Christopher Barnes, scholarly communications librarian, is trying to help. Last spring, Franklin & Marshall College handed out its first ever textbook affordability awards to faculty who best used open resources. Barnes' team also has offered faculty help in finding free alternatives to print texts.
"The greatest resource has been the level of support throughout campus, from the provost and president on down," he said.
Some educators caution that while they support making more material free to students, Open Educational Resources vary in quality among disciplines, as well as how up to date they are and how much support they offer for faculty and students using them.
"Some OERs are great and some may not be helpful," said Regan A.R. Gurung, a professor of psychology at Oregon State University. "The bottom line here is that OERs are extremely promising but we've got to make sure that in our assessments of OER that we are being true to the students. Just giving them something free if it's not the same quality really in the long run is not doing our students a service."
Rutgers University encourages faculty to explore and evaluate OERs the same way they would a commercial textbook, said Zara Wilkinson, reference and instruction librarian at Rutgers Camden.
"We also encourage them to think about other content they can provide to students that might not be OER," such as library resources, she said.
Rutgers in 2016 began offering faculty $1,000 incentives to reduce reliance on print textbooks in their classes. Since then, the university estimates 19,300 students at its campuses in Camden, Newark and New Brunswick have benefited and saved $3.5 million, Wilkinson said.
Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., earlier this year gave $2,000 grants to faculty to move toward open resources, said Sean Hendricks, an assistant vice president. The university estimates students are saving $120,000.