Affordable Accessibility

Since textbook prices can come with a free case of sticker shock, Rachel Fleming is committed to making course materials accessible to all students.

by Sarah Joyner

TThere is no denying that 2020 turned every facet of life upside down. How we work. How we learn. How we teach. How we socialize. How we parent. How we live. 

The COVID-19 pandemic led the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to reconsider nearly every way it serves students, employees, alumni and the Chattanooga community. Some of those tremors will still be felt years from now.  

But what changed for the better? What is worth keeping around?   

What did faculty and students come to understand about distance learning in spring semester 2020 when instruction was switched from in-person, in-class to online? 

As professors quickly migrated their courses online format for the second half of spring semester 2020, more faculty started thinking differently about their course content. “It made faculty think: When students aren’t in Chattanooga, they don’t have internet the same way,” explains Rachel Fleming.  

Fleming, scholarly communications librarian and coordinator of the UTC Library Affordable Course Materials Initiative, says those thoughts and actions evolved beyond ensuring internet access. A growing number of faculty were committed to making class resources and necessities more accessible to all students. 

She says faculty are now more committed to finding ways to get students the best, most affordable resources. “We had a huge increase in interest that’s persisted about creating affordable materials for students,” Fleming adds. 

Since spring 2020, the UTC Library has had more applications than ever for help via the Affordable Course Materials Initiative. Through it, the library works with faculty to swap costly course materials with more affordable options—existing library electronic resources, open educational resources, open access scholarship.  

The process looks different depending on the course. It might be as simple as swapping an expensive textbook for a more affordable one. It might be a complete course redesign. It might be a professor making an affordable text already in use more accessible to UTC students and beyond, such as a free textbook created by Chris Horne, associate professor of public administration at UTC. 

Estimates say the initiative saved UTC students more than $550,000 within its first three-and-half years. “Students can’t learn from a book that they can’t afford,” Fleming says, echoing a statement she’s heard from a colleague. “Students do not buy books just because they don’t want to buy books. They buy the books because they know it impacts their grades. The studies are out there to show this, but students have to make really hard choices about gas money and food and rent and ‘What do I really need to succeed?’”