They can be found in the strangest of places beyond the long-since-forgotten box in the attic, including the random biology graduate’s niece’s library or within the collective stack comprising the perfect Texan-themed wall display in one of Aggieland’s newest boutique hotels.
Pick an edition, any edition (10 and counting) of Campbell Biology, the most widely used introductory biology textbook in North America that’s more commonly if not notoriously known by generations of college students as the most expensive book resellers will rarely buy back. The physically and financially imposing tome, published by Pearson, is required for all gateway biology courses at many institutions, including Texas A&M University. Until now, thanks to the combined efforts of Texas A&M University Libraries and the Texas A&M Department of Biology that are set to save Texas A&M students required to take introductory biology courses more than $600,000 per year.
This summer, Texas A&M Biology will make the switch from Campbell Biology to the OpenStax Introductory Biology textbook, an open-source product created under a Creative Commons license that allows for customization to suit both professor- and course-specific needs. The online version of the text is free to students, and printed versions can be obtained at the student’s discretion for a nominal fee.
“The Biology faculty were impressed with the quality of the OpenStax product and the ability to customize it,” said Dr. David H. Carlson, dean of University Libraries. “The OpenStax product is bundled with the same auxiliary resources — videos, activities, homework assignments, quiz questions — as the commercial product, which makes adoption simple for the faculty. The OpenStax text also can be divided into BIOL 111 and 112 versions to make them more user-friendly for the students and applicable for the respective courses.”
Carlson cites the University Libraries’ Open Access Textbook Initiative as proof of Texas A&M’s commitment to the broad benefits of open educational resources — a sentiment echoed by OpenStax representatives.
“A major research institution like Texas A&M University has high standards for the resources used in its courses,” said Nicole Finkbeiner, associate director for institutional relations at OpenStax. “By adopting OpenStax Biology, Texas A&M University is joining over 4,200 other institutions from around the world that value the quality, flexibility and affordability of OpenStax textbooks.”
Longtime biology professor and associate head for academic affairs Dr. Wayne K. Versaw says departmental faculty began exploring open-source text options several years ago for two primary student-driven reasons: to improve education and curb rising costs.
“Traditional texts typically have far more content than necessary, and this confuses students who are still learning how to distinguish core concepts,” Versaw said. “Also, many of our faculty reported that their students needed loans to purchase texts or did not purchase a text due to cost.”
Versaw cited 2016 in-class surveys conducted by Biology Lower Division instructors Andrew Tag and Asha Rao that found nearly 12 percent of their introductory biology students did not own a text as motivation for the department’s decision to look into adopting one of the available open-source texts. When University Libraries approached the department in September to discuss alternatives to Campbell Biology, Versaw says it was serendipitous, given that both units independently had identified the same solution: OpenStax.
“Our decision was solidified — and the future outcome greatly improved — when we learned that University Libraries was interested in helping us tailor the text we had identified,” Versaw said. “The Libraries’ expertise with identifying and modifying open-source materials to fit our educational needs made for a perfect partnership. We are thrilled to work with them in fulfillment of a long process that exemplifies the dedication of our faculty to our mission and to our students.”
The perfect partnership soon had to weather the perfect storm when the Texas A&M Bookstore didn’t receive enough Campbell Biology textbooks to fulfill expected demand for BIOL 111 in fall 2017. To add insult to injury, an emergency order the bookstore had placed with Pearson was mistakenly shipped to the University of Arizona, leaving a number of students without textbooks as the semester’s second exam loomed large.
“Besides the cost and customization benefits of an open text, this mix-up emphasized another: an open-source textbook would have been available at no cost to every student on the first day of class,” Carlson said. “As a result, the librarians involved in the project were notified on September 25 that the Department of Biology would be switching to the OpenStax Introductory Biology textbook, effective summer 2018.”
During the 2015-16 academic year, there were 2,988 students enrolled in 131 sections of BIOL 111 at College Station and another 267 students enrolled in 18 sections at Galveston. Carlson notes that if every student enrolled in the class had purchased a new copy of the textbook through the Texas A&M Bookstore at a list price of $196.55, the total cost would have been $639,770.25. Of these students, 1,840 at College Station and 186 at Galveston went on to take BIOL 112, which uses the same textbook. The joint Biology-Libraries committee led by the University Libraries’ Dr. Bruce Herbert also took into account the fact that some students opt not to purchase the textbook, purchase a used copy or purchase one from a source other than the Texas A&M Bookstore.
“The Libraries very much appreciates that textbook decisions are faculty decisions, but we are trying to be a catalyst for change by providing resources and information about open texts so that faculty can make informed decisions,” Carlson said. “The opportunity savings for students are significant, and the advantages of open texts for faculty are substantial as well.”
In between now and summer, Carlson says librarians will be working with the biology faculty to customize the OpenStax textbook for Texas A&M’s curriculum and to mount the resulting product in OakTrust. In addition, the University Libraries’ Bruce Neville is teaming with Rao to develop a list of free or library-licensed resources to replace the textbook for BIOL 113: Essentials in Biology, a non-major course in biological and scientific literacy. The course is being re-designed in order to be offered as an online discussion course beginning in spring 2018. While the current enrollment is low (257 students for the last academic year), Rao says the department hopes to increase the enrollment over time.
“No-to-low-cost textbooks can increase enrollment and may draw students who otherwise might have shied away from the course in part due to the high-cost textbook,” Carlson said. “The textbook comes with high-impact learning experiences already created for faculty use and can be customized with relevant, local information at faculty discretion.
“In the process of complying with the state mandate to identify potential for low- and no-cost textbooks, we are demonstrating the value of partnerships between departmental faculty and subject librarians. Faculty have more control over what and how the material is covered, and the savings to students are estimated at greater than $600,000 per year. I think that’s a story worth shouting about!”
To learn more about OpenStax and other projects underway within the Texas A&M Libraries to benefit students, visit http://www.library.tamu.edu.
For additional information about undergraduate programs in Texas A&M Biology, go to http://www.bio.tamu.edu/index.php/undergrad/.