TRAVERSE CITY — Isaac Dedenbach spent $40 on a textbook for an English class at Northwestern Michigan College.

Two weeks into the class the instructor had not cracked the book. When his students asked why, Dedenbach said, they were told he had changed his mind.

Dedenbach sold the book back to the NMC bookstore and got $15.

Students spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks — an estimated $1,200 per year. About $3 billion of financial aid money is spent nationwide on textbooks every year, according to a Student Public Interest Research Group study.

It's money students could spend on tuition for an additional class, for childcare, transportation, rent or even groceries, says Tina Ulrich, director of NMC's Osterlin Library.

"Students are asking for our help to cut down on the cost of textbooks," Ulrich said.

That's where Open Educational Resources (OER) come in. Any material that is openly licensed and is in the public domain can be used by anybody for anything, Ulrich said. The digitized material is freely accessible and can be remixed, revised, redistributed and reused, she said. It can be used online, or students can print it out.

"You can download it, you can copy it, you can share it with anybody and you can keep it forever," Ulrich said.

OER has been in use at NMC for about five years after starting with a pilot program funded by a $5,000 NMC Foundation grant. Ten faculty members each converted one class to using all free material for the fall 2015 semester. They were given a choice of $500 or an iPad for their efforts, said Ulrich, who headed up the initiative.

There are now 62 faculty members — out of about 300 full-time and adjunct faculty — teaching with OER, Ulrich said.

And it has paid off. As of this spring, students at NMC have saved $1.27 million on textbooks, according to Ulrich.

"The big publishing companies have had their industry severely damaged by students using free materials," she said.

The latest move by publishers is to approach instructors and bookstores with an 'inclusive access' plan. If an instructor signs up for the plan the college automatically charges their students the cost of renting an e-book for the semester. That cost is about $80.

The charge is made directly to the student's account, so they may not even know about it, Ulrich said.

"It's a great deal for the publishers because they're guaranteed that every student will buy that book," she said.

The college bookstore also gets a cut, she said.

Sarah Wangler, a communications instructor, was in the pilot program and now uses OER for all of the classes she teaches. There are a lot of things she likes about it.

"I like being able to customize readings immediately based on student needs, instead of having to wait for another semester to choose a new textbook if something is not working," Wangler said. "With OER, I can find a new resource, or in many cases, edit or revise the current text to include content specific to my students' own assignments and questions."

Wangler says it's important to her to be responsible about what she asks her students to buy.

Textbooks have become so expensive that students don't always buy them.

Dedenbach said he doesn't know any students who buy their books ahead of time. Most go to class the first day or two before they decide whether to buy the books.

The OER movement started with community colleges, where many of the students are low-income, and has spread to universities, Ulrich said.

"It comes down to a social justice issue, as well," Ulrich said, as a student who can't afford the books may not be getting the same educational opportunity as someone who can.

"I don't think it's quite fair," said Dedenbach, who had a little extra help from scholarships.

OER has its drawbacks, as it takes time to find the right material, Ulrich said. Librarians at NMC have taken on the responsibility for keeping track of all the openly-licensed material, as there is a lot of it out there, she said.

But Congress is even backing the OER movement. In April congressional leaders unveiled the Affordable College Textbook Act that would establish grants to support colleges and universities in the creation and expansion of OER.

Price transparency requirements would also be strengthened so that when students register for classes they know which ones use OER materials.

Some colleges already provide that information. Ulrich said it's information NMC should have for its students.

Todd Neibauer, vice president for student services and technologies, said that the use of OER material is a decision made by each faculty member.

Neibauer said one concern about having information about free books being available for a class when a student is registering is that they may pick courses based on which ones are cheaper.

NMC hasn't looked into adding that information to its website, Neibauer said.

"It would be helpful to students," Neibauer said. "It's a matter of figuring out all the details of how it might work."

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