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An Innovative Approach: Lander Embraces Affordable Learning

Last fall, Lander Professor of Teacher Education Dr. Lee Vartanian became the first Lander educator to receive a PAL Award, recognizing him as a Professor for Affordable Learning. Since then, the award, conferred by the Partnership Among South Carolina Academic Libraries (PASCAL), has been bestowed upon 16 of his colleagues as well, giving Lander more PALs, by far, than any institution of higher learning in the state.

The award is part of the South Carolina Affordable Learning (SCALE) initiative, that seeks to reduce the cost of higher education by promoting the use of low-cost and no-cost learning materials, including open educational resources, sources available on the internet, and library resources.

Vartanian said that he has "noticed an uptick in the past 10 years or so in textbook prices," and he's not alone. According to PASCAL, the cost of textbooks has increased at four times the rate of inflation over the past decade.

Vartanian was recognized for changing the way he went about teaching a course called "Global Issues in Education." Previously, he had used a textbook that discussed education in different countries. In the chapter on Israel, for instance, an Israeli teacher education professor discussed the history of education in that particular country.

"It was interesting," he said, "but you can go online and see videos within Israeli schools; you can watch a TEDtalk of an Israeli teacher; you can see blogposts from teachers who are working in Israeli schools - these kinds of things where you can actually hear from teachers and get a window into those schools."

Best of all, such sources are free. Vartanian called the switch to free and open-source materials in that course, and in the other undergraduate classes he teaches, a "refreshing change. When you create your own content, you're taking charge of what you think is the good stuff," he said.

Going bookless in his "Survey in American Literature" class was easy for Associate Professor of English Dr. Lloyd Willis, because the literature that he focuses on is all in the public domain, making it readily available to students.

"Everything they need is available through a hyperlink. They can just click on that link, and go right to it," he said.

Willis's students who wish to purchase paper copies of the selections that he discusses are free to do so. However, he said, "very few" do.

Between a quarter and a third of the classes that Lander currently offers require no textbooks, according to Willis.

"The more I've learned about this on our campus, the more I've been impressed by the number of people who have been doing this on their own," he said.

Willis was asked if he thought the move away from textbooks by so many professors would have the effect of reining in publishers, as far as the prices they charge.

"It will," he said. "I'm already starting to see a little bit of it. I get emails about affordable books for freshman composition or other subjects. They're starting to use affordability as a marketing tool."

"The Internet of Things," which brought Associate Professor of Computer Science Dr. Farha Ali recognition as a PAL, has always been a bookless course.

"The material that I wanted to cover was scattered across several books." Instead of asking students to purchase multiple books, "I made my own material," she said.

Ali hasn't sworn off books altogether. "If I teach a programming class, I use a book," she said.

Helping faculty members find free or inexpensive material that suits their purposes is a big part of what University Archivist April Akins does in her role as Lander's coordinator of affordable learning. Akins, who also serves as vice chair for PASCAL's Affordable Learning Task Force, said she's assisting a number of faculty members in identifying materials that they can use in the fall.

She disputes the notion that such sources are in any way inferior in quality.

"A lot of the materials that we purchase, the print materials we have, e-book collections - they're by university presses. They're written by faculty who are at the same level as the people who have written the textbooks. Even with the open educational resources, it's faculty who are writing these materials. They have systems in place that allow you to see the peer review process, so you can evaluate the resource before you use it. You're not just picking something off the internet and saying, 'this was free; I'll give it to my students to use.'"

Lisa Wiecki, director of Library Services, said that librarians "can play a huge role in helping faculty to locate the resources that they need." She said that the online guide that library staff members have developed, which allows faculty members to search for affordable materials by subject matter, "has been really useful."

Wiecki praised Akins for being "willing to learn everything she possibly could" about affordable learning. "We're proud of what she's done, and also proud of our faculty for really embracing this," she said.

This story is featured in the Spring 2019 edition of Lander Magazine. Read more at www.lander.edu/magazine.

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