John C. Davis, The University of Arkansas at Monticello, and Adam Mckee, The University of Arkansas at Monticello
The University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) is a comprehensive, open-enrollment, rural-serving university. Our aim in this study was to measure the perceptions of UAM students regarding Open Educational Resources (OER). Using an online survey created and administered through Google Forms, we surveyed 109 students in a cross-section of criminal justice and political science courses that utilized OER course materials. We predicted that younger students would prefer technological modes of delivery, while older and less technologically savvy students would prefer traditional textbooks. An alternative to traditional, commercially published texts was also considered. A handful of OER producers (most notably OpenStax at Rice University) have begun publishing OER materials as printed books for a low price.
While the range of ages within the sample was broad, students tended to cluster in the traditional student age range from 18 to 22 years of age. Due to the nature of the classes we were teaching when the survey was conducted, seniors were overrepresented in the sample. Females were overrepresented in the sample versus the 50% to 50% ratio that one would expect from overall population data. This imbalance reflects national trends regarding college enrollment disparities by sex (Carrasco 2021).
We asked the students if the purchase price of textbooks factored into whether or not they purchased the textbook. Around 87% of the students surveyed indicated that price was the crucial factor in purchasing the text. It seems safe to conclude that students consider costs as a critical component of whether or not to buy required materials for courses. This theme was underscored several times in the free-response question that ended the survey. As one student put it, “I prefer it [OER] because as a college student living paycheck to paycheck, the pricing for books can be outrageous. It means a lot when the professor cares enough to understand this and to do what they can to make it easier for their students.” To put it more bluntly, another student quipped, “I like free stuff. I don’t have any money so this is great.”
Even students who prefer printed material support OER, and some are willing to go so far as to print digital material on their own. As one student suggested, “I would recommend it as it helps to mitigate the cost to students while also providing the option of printing out materials if you prefer a hard copy.” It seems as if there is a utility calculus, and at some price point, nearly every student will decline the buy even the required materials. One student explained, “It’s more likely for students to use it [OER] than purchasing an overpriced textbook.” This opinion is not limited to traditional college students but seems to cut across age groups.
Students are also concerned about how college costs impact other areas of their lives. As one student explains, “I would personally want to be in that class if that professor were to use an OER. Coming from a household where money could be tight at times, it is good to know that there is a possibility of having a free online book that I could possibly print to fit my preferences for a college class.”
We wondered whether students preferred digital readings to printed materials. According to the data, their preferences are nuanced. We asked students to indicate their preferred modality for reading class materials. Preferred digital platforms were varied; web pages were popular (20%), as were Portable Document Format (PDF) files (44%). Very few students indicated that they preferred ebook (e.g., Kindle) formats. We were surprised that a full third still preferred print materials. The data strongly suggest that students at UAM have a strong preference for digital media. Those that grew up in the post-smartphone world are accustomed to instantaneous (and effortless) access to free information. One student explained, “I prefer online because it’s free and easier to access at all times.” Some students believe that their preference is universal among students, suggesting a quantum shift over the past several years.
When asked to state their preferences based on recent experience, just under 20% of students indicated that they preferred a traditional textbook. The balance indicated that they either had no preference or preferred the OER materials. Of the three options, the largest category was “I prefer the OER materials,” with over 58% of students selecting that category. When asked about the perceived quality of OER materials, nearly 47% of students indicated that they believed that OER materials were superior in quality to traditional textbooks, and around 46% indicated that they perceived no difference in quality between OER and traditional textbooks. Only 7.8% believed that the traditionally purchased materials were of superior quality. Some of the students that suggested that they preferred traditional textbooks for quality reasons would not, it seems, go so far as to buy them. We were surprised to learn that even some of the students who preferred to read printed materials would still choose digital materials if they were completely free instead of “very low cost.”
As was suggested above, students seem to appreciate multiple modes of content delivery. As one student explains, “I would recommend the OER materials because you can access it anywhere via laptop, tablet, or smartphone without having to pay a large amount.” A substantial number of students want to see print versions in that mix. For many students, merely having the ability to print seems adequate: “I would recommend an option where it can be printed so it will be easier to study in.”
Another student suggested that engagement with course materials would be more likely if they were available in multiple formats. Ultimately, we agree with the student that stated: “I’d suggest using OER with the option to get a printed version.” While the data gathered in this study suggests that cost is among the top concerns of students, they are not blind to quality issues. One student explains, “The reason why is because it would save me money and I prefer reading material rather than reading from a textbook. The only thing I would recommend is that the OER materials come from a quality source.”
While the most common reason students stated for supporting OER was cost, other reasons are woven into their comments. One student explained several advantages. Until reading through the open responses, we never considered OER as a method of enhancing student opinions of both professors and the courses that they teach.
Several students used terms such as “grateful” and “blessed” to describe their feelings toward professors that used OER. While the particulars of student needs and preferences vary from person to person, the consensus seems to be, in the words of one enthusiastic student, “OER materials in all classes would be the best news ever.” Even those that prefer traditional textbooks are willing to make concessions based on the cost concerns of all students.
It is easy to underestimate how important the issue of textbooks is to students. Most of the faculty do not seem to assign the same gravity to the problem that students often do. One student explained, “We are broke college kids and are already paying money to take the class and adding expensive textbooks that we are required to buy breaks the bank for many students.” Additionally, until reading the open responses, we never considered OER as a method of enhancing student opinions of both professors and the courses that they teach. Several students used terms such as “grateful” and “blessed” to describe their feelings toward professors that used OER.
We hope this research note encourages faculty to consider the student benefits of OER materials. Future researchers in this area will no doubt want to consider the longitudinal advancement of technology. Preferences for traditional print media may decline as more and more students do not remember a time without ubiquitous digital reading platforms and content.
Carrasco, Maria. 2021. “Record Numbers of Men Give Up on College” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/09/08/record-numbers-men-%E2%80%98give-%E2%80%99-college
John C. Davis is an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Adam McKee is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
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