Local academic library organization getting creative to save students big bucks

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Amid the economic downturn and an uncertain near-term future, colleges and students everywhere are looking for ways to keep the price of a post-secondary education down.

The Private Academic Library Network of Indiana Inc. thinks it has several digitally driven initiatives that will help do that.

To combat the financial pressures on college students and their families, PALNI has created its affordable learning program—PALSave—with the goal of saving students more than $1 million in five years. Due to the early growth of their initiatives, PALNI officials are confident they’ll beat that goal, saving students $1.25 million by mid-2024.

PALSave, which launched in 2018 and got a boost from a $520,000 Lilly Endowment grant last year, combats rising


textbook costs at the 24 Indiana-based PALNI-supported colleges and universities by using free materials like open educational resources—often in digital form—instead of traditional commercial textbooks.

It’s also helping college instructors to author open source textbooks, and PALNI is creating a digital repository to make those books available to anyone for free.

The problem of rising college textbook costs is a big one, said PALNI Executive Director Kirsten Leonard.

“In the 2019-20 school year, students spent an average of $1,240 for textbooks,” she said. “That’s on top of tuition and fees. Textbook savings will help to make college more affordable for all.”

The pandemic and recession are driving increased interest in open educational resources that are not only less expensive but are quality digital course materials that are easier to access for remote learners, Leonard said.

“We believe the PALSave affordable learning program provides a solution to the rising costs of textbooks while helping serve the digital need the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated,” Leonard said.

New data from PALNI that shows that through the PALSave program, students have already collectively saved more than $200,000 on textbooks.

PALNI, which was created in 1992, is using the Lilly Endowment funding to fuel the PALSave program in a number of ways. Part of the effort is centered on educating college instructors and getting them to use the free resources available to help cut down on the use of pricey hard copy commercial textbooks.

Through the PALSave program, instructors can get $500 in assistance to redesign their course using open source materials.

“We can help teachers re-design courses to use open source materials,” Leonard said. “As soon as you turn faculty on to this, they’re immediately interested.”

Another $200 is available for instructors who review open source material.

“The reviews are a critical element,” Leonard said, “They shows how this applies to [instructors’] students.”

With 87 faculty members now enrolled in the PALSave Course Redesign Grants program, year two savings is estimated to grow to $304,000, according to PALNI.

PALNI’s efforts are going far beyond promoting existing open source opportunities.

“The next big phase is helping in the creation of open education resources,” Leonard said. “There’s a demonstrated need for this among students. Some students are not buying the textbooks due to the expense. So they’re not as successful in the course.”

PALNI, a not-for-profit with four full-time employees, recently created an authoring platform that helps instructors create open source educational materials, and PALSave offers textbook creation grants.

The PALSave Textbook Creation Grants Program is funding the creation of five open textbooks. Grant funding of up to $6,500 is available per accepted proposal. PALNI will coordinate peer review, copy editing, layout and hosting services. Faculty members from PALNI-supported institutions have been invited to submit proposals. Textbooks may cover any discipline at the undergraduate or postgraduate level and should be complete textbooks geared toward a specific field of study, Leonard said. The material will be openly accessible and free to use by all.

PALNI is providing an open source authoring tool, Pressbooks, to support faculty adaptation and authorship. So far, one faculty member from Butler University has published a textbook for his course using this service, and it can be accessed at here. PALNI officials expect more faculty to use this platform as they redesign their courses.

In addition to the authoring tool, PALNI is developing open source software—called Hyku—to optimize it for storage and discovery of open textbooks and other open educational materials across multiple libraries to control costs. The digital repository, a joint project between PALNI and Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium Inc., was piloted this year and is set to have educational material available from it by the end of this year.

In addition to educational material, Hyku will provide storage and access to a wide range of digital materials, including journal articles, electronic theses and dissertations, archival collections and institutional documents. PALNI’s institutional repository coordinator, Nicholas Stanton-Roark, based out of Anderson University, was the first to deposit a collection of student work on behalf of University of Indianapolis.

Erin Milanese, PALNI’s affordable learning project coordinator, is tracking the redesigned courses and the free resources selected by faculty across the consortium. The Hyku repository will act as a discovery tool for these resources, creating a resource to help other faculty flip their courses to use free resources to support even more students, Leonard said.

Some open online repositories have grown quickly. The Open Textbook Library, created by Minnesota-based Open Education Network, has more than 800 textbooks available for free, each book vetted and certified to meet Open Education Network’s criteria for academic rigor.

PALNI’s “repository will have links to existing openly accessible content selected from over 80 course redesign grants, and will continue to grow as we add more participants,” Leonard said. “For newly authored content, there will be five PALNI/Lilly Endowment-funded textbooks, and we plan to continue to support the creation of new material by PALNI faculty going forward. We will also work with PALCI to join material created from their project funded by multiple Pennsylvania partners. So there will be much more content added over the next few years.”

Getting access to free materials for instructional use in a college classroom is not necessarily just a web search away.

“Finding and using open educational resources is not just going to the internet, finding material and re-using it,” explained Amanda Hurford, PALNI’s scholarly communications director and PALSave chair. “A creative commons license signals to users that the information can be re-used. Open text books is one type created by authors with the express intent of making them available for free. That’s what we’re trying to advance.”

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