In just five years, more than $1 million has been kept in the pockets of students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga by its Affordable Course Materials Initiative.
The initiative was barely more than a good idea when Rachel Fleming joined UTC as scholarly communications librarian in 2017 and was charged with taking it forward.
“What drew me to UTC was that affordability was part of the position, and I was looking for something where I knew the work that I do would make an impact for the good of students and this is very fulfilling to me,” Fleming said.
“One of the things librarians like to do is talk to all of the faculty and help them design what they need for their courses, and I love hearing from them about how we can do that.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual cost of college textbooks and supplies averaged $1,226 per student in 2021. “Affordable course materials,” generally alternatives to printed or digital textbooks, have proven to help lower costs for students.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the development of digital and/or online course materials in response to demand from online instruction and—almost overnight—doubled their inventory at UTC.
“Not only did COVID really bring this to students who were having to continue their education from home and needing materials, a lot of people’s eyes were opened to the real lives of students where expenses and money are big issues,” Fleming said. “For a lot of students, textbooks can be an unexpected expense, especially to first-generation students.
“I think of someone coming to UTC who has worked really hard, maybe taken some community college courses and made good grades, gotten admitted here and then runs into all of these unanticipated expenses. Their experience is, ‘I worked really hard to get here and to pay my tuition, and now you’re telling me there’s this additional $400 for books? It can be not only an unexpected cost, some students come from families who just don’t have that kind of money, and it can mean making choices between living expenses and books.”
While textbook publisher “e-version” books are widely prevalent, they aren’t necessarily a lower-cost option.
Developing more affordable course materials for UTC students is the result of collaboration between Fleming and faculty who come for help designing and preparing materials that can replace textbooks in achieving course learning outcomes. In most cases, course materials costs are completely eliminated in revised courses.
“It’s really the faculty who are doing the work of adjusting their courses,” Fleming said. “We’ve worked on courses at all levels—introductory to upper-division to graduate-level—and I’ve worked with faculty from all colleges. Even though it’s been primarily the College of Arts and Sciences, I’ve also worked with faculty from the Rollins College of Business, the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies, and even the College of Engineering and Computer Science.”
Faculty are also creating free materials with open access via the UTC Scholar platform that is being shared worldwide. For instance, UTC Dalton Roberts Professor of Public Administration Chris Horne’s “A quick, free, somewhat easy-to-read introduction to empirical social science research methods” has been downloaded more than 5,800 times since 2018—all for free—by scholars in Asia, Australia, Africa and Europe.
Fleming described UTC Scholar as the home of the University’s research and creative works and publications, including honors theses, masters theses and doctoral dissertations, conference proceedings such as from ReSEARCH Dialogues and the annual River Cities Industrial-Organizational Psychology conference at UTC, and the Modern Psychological Studies journal produced by undergraduates and overseen by UC Foundation Professor of Psychology David Ross.
Fleming has kept busy this summer assisting faculty with finding and reviewing materials for courses that will be revised for the upcoming 2022-2023 academic year.
“Affordable Course Materials is part of what we do as an institution to ensure an engaging and enlightening experience,” Fleming said. “It’s part of meeting our strategic, transformative learning goal of being good stewards of our resources and enabling good stewardship of our students’ resources while also delivering really great learning experiences.
“Since 2020, there’s been such a boom in Tennessee in interest and development of free materials for courses, and we really are a leader in this in the state and among the institutions setting the pace.”
The Affordable Course Materials initiative is unquestionably Fleming’s favorite responsibility.
“Folks are looking at their course materials and asking, ‘What if I taught it this way and what about these more engaging, active pedagogy processes could I use?’ Fleming said.
“My portfolio does include other tasks, but if somebody contacts me about affordable materials, I’ll literally throw whatever else I’m doing off my desk. I can’t wait to talk about what we can do to make their course materials more affordable and achieve their learning goals.”