By Joe Pelletier, The Enterprise
About 71 classes at Massasoit Community College offer free digital resources that replace costly textbooks.
BROCKTON — Alex Cotter remembers well the small horror of buying college textbooks.
After he dished out dough on tuition, fees and every other school-related expense, the Massasoit bookstore would ring up a number like $500 for a fresh stack of books each semester.
“It was always a gut punch,” said Cotter, a former student who is now the chair of the math department at Massasoit Community College. “Semester after semester, it was another couple hundred bucks out of your pocket.”
That financial punch can be especially gut-wrenching in a community college atmosphere, where many students are already tightening their belts to simply attend. It’s not unusual, Cotter said, for Massasoit students to forgo buying the textbooks because they have to put food on the table instead.
It’s not right, he and many others believe. And they are part of a growing army of Massasoit administrators and faculty members seeking to combat that problem with a 21st century solution.
Free digital textbooks.
It’s been a campaign that started brewing five years ago, and has found its footing in 2018 thanks to budding faculty support and several state grants. Today, Massasoit offers 71 classes (105 sections) that come with free digital textbooks and resources.
Take Cotter’s calculus class this semester, for example. In years past, there was a $200 textbook required of his students. This year, his class can get it for free right on their laptop or phone.
No bookstore gut punch necessary.
“I really think it’s a social justice issue,” said Jesse Schreier, Massasoit’s coordinator of instructional technology. “It’s about access to information and access to learning. For many of our students, buying a $200 textbook is cost-prohibitive. They’re trying to put food on the table, they’re trying to pay rent. To ask them to buy that book when that same information is available for free online is not right.”
About 56 faculty members now offer OER classes at Massasoit, nearly half of which joined the fold last year thanks to a $58,000 incentive grant from the state. The classes are all over the academic spectrum, from Cotter’s math classes to psychology, English and history.
The digital resources typically reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that allow free use and repurposing.
The school hit a major milestone with OER materials this summer, too: an estimated $1 million saved in textbook expenses for their students. The gravity of that number wasn’t lost on Schreier, who helped organized a small celebration for the professors who made it happen.
“It was really meaningful to me,” he said. “These professors aren’t doing it for the small stipend they get to switch over to OER. They’re doing it because they want to save their students money.”
The school created an oversized $1 million check to celebrate the milestone, written out to “The students of Massasoit Community College.” Each of the faculty members involved in switching to OER classes signed it.
OER classes are a money-saver, students said, but also make student life easier. There’s no waiting in line at the bookstore to buy the book, no lugging it around to class and no worrying about its condition when you sell it back to the store.
And you can just pull it up on your phone at any time.
“You can do a lot more with online books,” said Jordan Palmer, a biology student from Brockton. “You can hit Ctrl+F if you need to search something, or you can send a screenshot to someone else on the computer.”
Some digital textbooks have interactive cells or worksheets to write in, or tools to highlight or bookmark certain sections. Most online books come with additional digital materials and links, too.
“It’s endless resources at zero cost,” said Jefferson Francois, a 2017 Brockton High School graduate and first-year mechanical engineering student at Massasoit.
More broadly, Cotter said, the online materials are also a step toward using modern technology to change the methods of education.
“In a way, we’re still teaching things the way we’re used to teaching them and trying to incorporate new technology into that,” said Cotter, a Brockton native. “We’re not taking full advantage of the technology because its difficult to let go of traditional teaching and learning. Once we fully embrace how technology is changing education, and what technology can do for us, I think the classroom is going to start looking very different than it does now.”
Cotter is a great example of the modern classroom — he’s created hours and hours of video content for his students. That calculus class he teaches this semester? There’s more than 100 hours of video available for students.
And in class, when he fills up his whiteboard with math equations, he makes sure to snap a picture of it on his cellphone and upload it online.
The push toward online resources will hopefully result in what’s called a zero-cost degree at Massasoit, Schreier said. That’s an entire degree that can be acquired without having to pay for a single textbook. A few colleges across the country (Tidewater Community College in Virginia is one of the leaders) already offer it.
That would be a major departure from the current national average of about $1,400 annually for course materials at two-year colleges, according to Collegeboard.
The zero-cost degree is a definite possibility at Massasoit in the next couple years, he said.
“I bet in 10 years, most courses will have no textbook,” Schreier said. “That’s my honest belief. With an option, students will flock to courses with free resources and just won’t enroll in classes that require a $100 textbook.”
To search for spring 2019 classes that require no textbook purchase, visit massasoit.edu/course-search and choose No Textbook Purchase under Course Attributes.