These colleges are betting that culturally relevant textbooks will improve student outcomes.

Millie Gonzalez and her colleagues are not here to debate whether open educational resources are on par with traditional textbooks – she says Research It’s pulled out.

Gonzalez and Framingham State University, where she is the interim director of the Whitmore Library, are part of a team in Massachusetts looking for answers to a variety of questions. Such as: What happens if students get access to free catalogs – Culturally relevant textbooks are important here. What if color professors are involved in the process of creating books tailored to their class?

“What will be the consequences for students, especially students in the underserved community?” Called Gonzalez. “Usually when you hear any discussion about free textbooks, it really only talks about price and goes much further than what we say.”

Six Massachusetts colleges and universities, including the state Department of Higher Education, are testing their hypothesis that free, culturally relevant textbooks can improve student performance.

The project, called Open Textbook Remixing through Equity Lens, will be supported by a three-year 441,000 federal grant. Professors who create new open educational resources (OER for short) or adapt to existing open textbooks will receive financial support and guidance from this fund. The books will be distributed to 29 Massachusetts colleges with undergraduate programs.

“We will create a model that other states can use for their cultural relevance,” says Jess Egan, coordinator of instructional design at Holyoke Community College. “We’re trying to promote a model of knowingly creating or restructuring the OER that is not necessary to meet the needs of your students and just textbooks.”

Other institutional partners are Fitchburg State University, Northern Essex Community College, Salem State University and Springfield Technical Community College.

Beyond affordability

To illustrate the emphasis on cultural relevance, Gonzalez recalls her memories of growing up in New York City. Her experiences cannot be far from the examples of her primary school textbooks focusing on agriculture.

“As a little girl, I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in the fields.’ But everything suited this particular countryside, when I was in Manhattan. It didn’t fit, “she says.

But Gonzalez believes students will be able to reflect themselves in the texts they receive: “With OER, we can certainly give our students this experience.”

Professors will be encouraged to draw local references and examples into their textbooks, Gonzalez says, and to include non-white descriptions. About 39 percent of Framingham State University people are identified as people of color, with Latino and Black students representing 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

She says, “If you want to change dynamics and engage students, you can involve students in the creation of your textbook.”

Egan says most Texas textbooks are made in Texas or Florida and their cultural contexts show their origins.

She says, “For us in New England – a very progressive, activist place – some principles have been removed from the curriculum so we are here.” “We want to emphasize critical race theory [and] Decolonization. ”

Egan is working with a professor of physiology and physiology who is ready to change the image in her textbook, which features figures of predominantly white men. It doesn’t work for a campus where about 1 in 4 students is Latino and a total of 40 percent are identified as people of color.

“It’s not a reflection of the community and it doesn’t prepare students to serve the community,” Egan says. “She wants to completely diversify the images so that she can better show maternal health for black women or ‘diabetes for the XYZ community’ and show them as a practitioner what society is going to treat them.”

Filling the gap

Subjects like English and lower level mathematics are well included in the OER ecosystem. Egan says remixing open textbooks through equity lenses is an opportunity to fill areas where open textbooks are more rare, such as childhood education, health care and criminal justice. The professors will be assisted by an advisory council made up of local employers in the same area, which includes hospital staff whose feedback can inform changes in the anatomy and physiology text mentioned by Egan.

“Professors are recognizing distances and the hospital is providing insights on the distances they see. It’s a great combination of community and equity and purposeful curriculum design, ”says Egan.

Egan says creating and adapting open textbooks will make the college more agile as well. As new skills are demanded from employers, they can add chapters or choose the format that works best for their class.

“With things like social media marketing, if you print a book this year, it might not be relevant next year,” she says. “We’re able to keep up with emerging trends and keep up with what’s happening here and now.”

For example, music professor Egan works hard to ensure the text of his music theory, which is removing textbooks for four classes, will be unbound. This will allow students to use the included sheet music more easily.

“We have to print it in a certain way so that when the students are playing the piano, they can keep the book that way,” he said. I’ve never thought of such a thing before, “she says.”[OER] Not just PDF anymore. ”

Measuring success

To measure the success of the program, participating colleges will look at retention rates, grades, and number of professors using open textbooks. Librarians, technicians and designers will collaborate to analyze the effectiveness of the program and identify where students are struggling with content.

“We know students don’t always buy books, and they create this cycle where they stay behind,” Egan says. “So not only do we reduce costs, but we have a data-based focus to make sure we’re reaching the population that is currently in crisis.”

Of course, there are advantages in students ’pocketbooks when professors offer open course materials. With the possible creation of the program Up to 79 books, Participating organizations estimate that students collectively save at least $ 800,000 in textbook costs. This can be especially comforting for students struggling financially or navigating college alone.

“First-generation students who don’t really know what to expect when they go to college are assuming, like in high school, that all of this material will be given to them,” says Gonzalez. “Then we tell them, ‘By the way, you have to spend $ 1,000 on textbooks.’ ‘

Gonzalez hopes that colleges throughout Massachusetts and across the country will accept materials produced by the project’s six partner organizations. At the very least, this project will encourage professors who plan to use their textbooks primarily as a reference for choosing an OER book.

She says, “There’s a lot of great OER stuff that we can assimilate and then it’s the taste of New England, our regional taste and – above all – the deliberate cultural relevance that I think is so lacking.”

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