Supporters of Free Resources Tout Creative Leeway for Teachers, but Skeptics Caution Some Materials Lack Quality or Coherence

The Wall Street Journal
By Leslie Brody

The City University of New York predicts that ditching more textbooks in favor of free online materials will save 50,000 students more than $4.5 million this coming year in book fees.

Like many schools nationwide in recent years, CUNY and the State University of New York have started replacing some required textbooks with free digital options. That effort got a boost in April when the state allotted $4 million to each institution to speed up the change.

So-called open educational resources can be downloaded, edited and shared under an intellectual-property license that allows their use at no cost. Such materials are “outstanding tools,” said Marc Cohen, the 22-year-old president of the Student Assembly at SUNY. He applauded the shift as “life-changing,” saying every student has been forced to buy an “insanely expensive textbook” at some point. One organic chemistry tome, for example, costs $364.

While supporters of free materials say they give teachers more leeway to be creative, skeptics caution that some resources lack quality or coherence and adapting them can be time-consuming.

At CUNY, where almost half of the student body comes from households earning less than $20,000, officials said the cost of a student’s books can total as much as $1,200 a year. The officials said faculty members were converting 350 popular courses to free digital materials for the fall and were being trained on their use. These resources will be shared publicly.

The infusion of funding for this project is “a real shot in the arm for efforts to make college attendance even more affordable,” said CUNY Chancellor James Milliken. He said the course catalog will show which classes have no textbook fees, and, in a year or two, some CUNY degrees won’t require such fees.

Eleven of SUNY’s 64 campuses have reported enrollment information so far, and at those 11 schools, officials projected that 12,000 students will be taking at least one course using open educational resources this fall. Overall, SUNY estimates its students will save around $8 million on textbooks by June 2018.

Jean Amaral, a librarian at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, said courses converting to open educational resources this fall include psychology, English literature and public speaking.

In surveys, students at her campus reported that digital materials saved them from lugging heavy backpacks and were more quickly accessible than printed books they had to order. Some students said they could study on cellphones on the subway. One student said saving money on books allowed the purchase of a MetroCard.

Ms. Amaral said some teachers were excited about the chance to tap more engaging and interactive materials, including audio and video. “Textbooks are incredibly dry,” the librarian said.