Several campuses across Penn State have participated in a pilot that tackles the age-old problem of how to make textbooks more affordable and also helps students become more successful in the classroom.

During the past fall and current spring semesters, faculty at the Penn State Schuylkill, Worthington Scranton, Berks, Hazleton, Mont Alto, University Park, and York campuses have utilized the e-text platform called Unizin Engage, and it has the potential to transform the future of affordable content at Penn State. Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) identified faculty who taught courses that used textbooks whose publishers were partners with Unizin Engage.

“It’s a new opportunity for faculty to think about how they’re using textbooks,” said Julie Lang, instructional designer and open educational resources (OER) coordinator with TLT.

Julie looks at whiteboard full of feedback

Lang works with students at a fall focus group session to gain feedback on the pilot.

The platform is being funded through TLT and University Libraries.

The main feature that has won over both instructors and students over is the affordability, as texts on the platform are free to all students during the pilot. If Penn State continues to use Unizin Engage beyond the pilot, students would pay a nominal fee, which will still be significantly less than the cost of a traditional textbook.

“The cost of higher education is going up and it’s crushing,” said Fred Aebli, instructor of information sciences and technology at the Worthington Scranton campus. “We need to do better, and I think this is a great, great step to help students recoup some money to cover all the costs they have.”

Feedback from students has been positive, especially in regard to money saving. For example, in an accounting course taught by Yili Lian, assistant professor of business and economics at the Worthington Scranton campus, a traditional, physical textbook costs students approximately $200.

Convenience is also key.

“Nowadays, many of them have laptops and touchpads, so I think it’s easier for them to carry and they can access that anywhere, anytime they like to,” Lian said.

An additional benefit is that students are able to access their required text from day one of a course. Lang said a frequent complaint from students is that they cannot purchase required textbooks until their financial aid is processed. This can take from three weeks to more than one month.

Students can also read their textbooks anytime offline through the Unizin Engage platform, Lang added.

During focus groups in late October and November that were used to gauge the pilot’s success, students said they really appreciated the ease of access and features within the platform. These features include note-taking, highlighting, and the search tool, which allows students to search within the text and on the web.

Students smile for camera at focus group session

Two Schuylkill students pleased with the Unizin pilot were Bria Nickerson (left) and Deja Young, shown above at the focus group session. They were both in Ron Kelly’s Introduction to Criminal Justice course.

The analytics feature of Unizin Engage has also proven to be beneficial, both to faculty and students.

According to Ron Kelly, instructor in administration of justice at the Schuylkill campus, data analytics inside the e-text platform allow faculty to easily monitor where students are at in their reading. This allows faculty to help students who are falling behind. When analytics show that a student has been cramming for an exam, faculty can talk to them about the importance of reading chapters as they are assigned.

Aebli agrees that the analytics feature is especially useful. “It’s given me an extra tool now to understand the students better and try to figure out different ways to engage them,” he said. “For me, it’s wonderful.”

Aebli said this has made him realize that he needs new strategies to help students become more active in their reading.

After looking at two exams in the fall, Aebli noted that participation has increased. He said essay responses felt more complete than in previous semesters, and he believed that students had more refined thoughts, which could be in large part due to the reading and feeling more engaged by the e-text platform.

In the future, faculty members have high hopes for continuing to use the e-text platform for their courses.

“Everything should be intuitive and affordable,” Lian said.

Lian said he really hopes the pilot is expanded, with more publishers, as it will be advantageous for finance courses he teaches. He added that while he finds the course material helpful in this format, he understands some instructors prefer more traditional ways to use course content.

Aebli said he would love to implement gamification using the notes feature. “I’m a big proponent of gamification inside the courses, and I’ve used gamification techniques in other courses to get students to read more, and I am going to look at a color-coding feature that just feels on the surface like a gamification element,” he said.

Aebli explained that he is thinking about incorporating teams to increase interaction among students, where the “blue team” would seek out the “orange team” to put together an assignment.

For Kelly, he would love to be able to provide an openly-licensed textbook to students in the eight to ten sections of the first-year seminar course he teaches every fall. In the course, Kelly said students are required to pay $62 each for a welcome-to-college book, and a lot of the resources they need are provided through lectures, guest speakers, and PowerPoints.

This summer, Kelly and another faculty member, Darlene Young, who works as a math specialist for the campus Academic Resource Center, are piloting an OpenStax openly licensed textbook that will be delivered to students through Unizin Engage for a statistics course. He said that he will be teaching a night face-to-face class while Young teaches two online sections.

At the Schuylkill campus, Kelly said a lot of instructors are moving toward e-books instead of textbooks.

“I see that this will level the playing field for students so that everybody coming to a class doesn’t have to worry about that cost incurred from a textbook, that they’re all coming into it at the same level, with all the same tools and resources to be successful in that course,” Kelly said.

In addition to Engage, another resource that faculty and staff at Penn State have access to through Unizin is the Pressbooks platform.

“We have a number of faculty who are currently using Pressbooks to adapt and author OER,” Lang said. “I am hopeful that in the future Pressbooks will continue to work on an integration with Canvas. This would allow for updating content in Pressbooks and having it load with the revisions across all courses in Canvas, as well as faculty being able to integrate Pressbooks and the Canvas Gradebook.”

If you are interested in what Pressbooks is hoping to do in the future you can check out their roadmap. To get started with a Pressbooks account at Penn State, contact Julie Lang, OER coordinator, and Amanda Larson, OER librarian, at L-OER-AT-PENN-STATE@LISTS.PSU.EDU.

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