Alternate Textbooks + Engaged Students = Retention Value

Editor’s note: In today’s guest post, ACRL President Steven J. Bell discusses how alternatives to traditional textbooks can increase student engagement and retention.

According to college student retention research, two of the top six reasons undergraduates drop out are lack of financial resources and poor grades. The more at-risk a student is, the greater the likelihood he or she will fail to persist to graduation owing to either of these reasons or quite possibly both. Academic librarians have no control over the cost of higher education. Our ability to help students succeed academically may be limited to only those opportunities involving research support. For a student on the cusp of failure that may be insufficient. Thanks to technology, our robust collections and a growing acceptance of open educational resources, academic librarians may now be better positioned to improve affordability and learning using the textbook as a catalyst for change.

“Do you have my textbook?” is perhaps the most frequently asked question at every academic library reference desk in the first weeks of the semester. Students will do almost anything to avoid paying full price for a textbook, including borrowing a long out-of-date edition from the library, sharing the cost of a single textbook with fellow students, or just choosing to get through the course without the book. Not only do textbooks add to students’ financial burden, but efforts to avoid buying them detract from the learning experience. How can academic librarians help students avoid the textbook double whammy? The answer is collaborating with faculty to create new or use existing alternate textbooks that cost students nothing but optional printing fees.

At Temple University Libraries we are now in the second year of our local Alternate Textbook Project. In each round ten faculty receive a $1,000 grant to develop an alternate textbook. Although boosting student retention is not explicitly stated, the Project has multiple outcomes: (1) save students money to improve college affordability; (2) encourage faculty to make more use of library and open educational resources; (3) improve student learning.

Alternate textbooks can mix resources from existing textbooks, licensed library collections, primary research content, open textbooks, multimedia or faculty’s self-authored material. What the final product looks like and how it is used is entirely up to the individual faculty member, but librarians are available to help with identifying and organizing resources.

Evaluations from the first round indicated that students engaged with course content more frequently than when traditional print textbooks were used. It makes perfect sense. If the textbook is too costly and students don’t buy it or use older editions, the result is less engagement and decreased learning. While students indicated a preference for print textbooks, it was clear they were willing to accept digital alternate textbooks that are no or low cost.

There is a similar project being offered by the Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At the ALA Annual Conference, librarians from the California State University shared how they are encouraging and supporting faculty to adopt alternatives to traditional textbooks. We should expect to see more academic librarians initiating these projects on their campuses. While we are not yet able to provide research results that confirm a direct relationship be alternate textbook projects and improved student retention, we do know anecdotally (and from course evaluations) from both faculty and students that undergraduates are much more likely to engage with course learning content when it is affordable and conveniently delivered, that alternate textbooks save students money and that students greatly appreciate faculty who make the effort to eliminate expensive print textbooks.

At the ALA Conference, ACRL held a VAL Research Agenda Meeting to identify topics and methodologies that allow academic librarians to conduct the research that will demonstrate the value of academic libraries. Let us consider adding to that agenda research into the connection between alternate textbooks, increased student engagement and persistence to graduation. Until then, let’s hope more academic libraries will take a leadership role at their institutions to establish alternate textbook projects. In the short term, we can save students many thousands of dollars.

Additional reading:

Coming in the Back Door: Leveraging Open Textbooks To Promote Scholarly Communications on Campus.

Temple U. Project Ditches Textbooks for Homemade Digital Alternatives.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.