As an instructor of Developmental Reading and Writing classes, I often see students struggle with purchasing their textbooks. Some students purchase them right away, some students purchase them several weeks into the course, and some students don’t purchase them at all. This can pose challenges for both the student and the instructor. The student doesn’t have access to readings or homework that need to be completed, and the instructor often needs to repeat material, to provide other material, or to help find other ways to share course information with the student who is without a textbook. There are many reasons that students struggle with getting their textbooks; the biggest reason is the cost. Textbooks for developmental education courses can range anywhere from around fifty dollars to well over one hundred dollars. Since these courses don’t count toward the students’ programs, students may feel it is not worth the cost. Students are already paying tuition for this course and the textbook can often add to the financial burden. Enter the “free” textbook.
Recently, college instructors across the country have begun to create their own textbooks using Open Educational Resources (OER). These resources have a common copyright (they are openly licensed) and are free for educators to use. Many instructors of various college courses have begun to use these free resources to create their own online textbook. This can then be put into the instructor’s course using Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, or whatever learning management system the institution has available. One of the biggest benefits with using OER to create your own textbook is that the book is then free to the students. All of the students will have all of the materials loaded into their course, so each student will have the material available to them to complete assignments. Another benefit is that the students have the material available to them from day one, so the instructor can dive into content immediately. Students no longer need to wait for financial aid or for their next paycheck to be able to purchase the textbook. There is no “access code” required for students to purchase to be able to access online homework. This is often an added textbook cost. The instructor also benefits by having more flexibility in terms of materials to choose from and even being able to modify things as needed throughout the semester. The instructor can also create his or her own materials and make them available to other instructors by putting a common copyright license on them.
Along with the positives of OER, there are also some drawbacks. The biggest drawback is time. It takes an incredible amount of hours to create each course. The amount of material available from OER resources is enormous. Wading through the information and deciding what is useful to each course can take hours and hours. Time is then needed to organize the material and make sure course competencies are being met. The time it takes for each instructor to create each course can result in quite an undertaking. Another drawback is that many students prefer or need printed copies of some of the materials. Students who qualify for disability services may need printed materials. This can add to the costs for the institution or the student, depending on how each institution charges for printing. Despite OER being pushed as being “free,” costs include much time on the part of the instructor creating the course and sometimes printing charges.
I have recently had some experience with a resource that offers an integrated reading and writing program. This is a resource by The NROC Project (Network, Resources, Open, College and Career). The NROC Project is available through HippoCampus.org and EdReady.org. Most of the materials are available for free. There is also a membership version where the institution pays a membership fee. This allows for more integration with the article or story being used for each unit as well as enabling all of the writing and work a student completes to be saved and archived. With the membership, the institution is able to have the NROC course and materials put directly into the college’s Learning Management System (LMS).
In piloting these materials, I found many benefits and a few drawbacks. Some of the benefits include:
- high quality engaging videos
- strong integration of reading and writing skills
- topics that are interesting and relate to daily life
- ability to view videos and content as often as needed
- closed-captioning of all spoken materials available
- ability to have articles read to students in the Active Reader section
- modules (or units) that have established content that works together
- a sequential progression of skills and format.
I believe another benefit is that these units can be used in a variety of course formats, such as lecture, web, or individual lab. Other benefits include the “Active Reader” section, which not only allows the student to hear the article read to them, but also also highlights vocabulary and grammar skills. Students can listen to the article as many times as they need to with the read aloud component. All of the videos provide closed-captioning, another benefit and a big help for students who qualify for disability services.
One of the drawbacks for me involved is the writing component. The writing component does provide a systematic progression through the writing process. Students appreciate the step-by-step approach with the tips and video modeling. However, the technology in this area is what the students struggle with most. One work around is to have students respond in their notebooks instead of in the boxes provided on the computer. Another idea is to offer some extra writing time in class to help trouble-shoot some of the technology challenges. The writing center section of each unit does provide a clear integrated process, which is a great benefit to the students.
I have found working with the NROC materials a bit challenging. Just like using a new textbook, there is a bit of a learning curve and it takes some time and practice to become familiar with the new materials. I would say that from the students’ point of view, the time has been worth it. There are still things I will continue to work on, but I find the engaging videos and integrated content provide a good foundation for students needing developmental English courses. For more information on NROC, go to http://thenrocproject.org. For information about free materials, including free NROC materials, go to http://www.hippocampus.org. For more information about OER materials, go to https://www.oercommons.org.
Rebecca Bartlett is a full time Instructor at Central Community College. She teaches primarily integrated reading and writing foundation courses along with other courses in English. Rebecca is devoted to helping others improve their basic reading and writing skills. She has worked with age ranges from adult to young children as a reading instructor and tutor. Rebecca has a passion for helping others and for promoting lifelong learning. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English Education and a Master’s degree in Education and Reading Specialist Certification. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in English. To contact Rebecca, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.