September 22, 2019 | 77° F

Rutgers grant creates collaborative learning material for less, curated by students and faculty

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Petros Levounis, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (RNJMS) and recipient of an OAT award in 2016, said that aside from paying less for learning materials like textbooks, the money awarded helps students sharpen skills like editing and proofreading. 

The Open and Affordable Textbooks Program (OAT) is run by Rutgers University Libraries and aims to make class material much more affordable for the average student. 

Through the program, which is available across all Rutgers campuses, faculty are awarded grants for the development and use of open-educational resources in their own classes, according to University Libraries.

Lilyana Todorinova, undergraduate experience librarian at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, coordinated the program.

“(OAT) is an incentive grant program that was endorsed by (University) President (Robert L.) Barchi back in 2015," she said. "It is a system-wide initiative and is inclusive among all Rutgers subjects of business, humanities, sciences and so on.” 

Rutgers students spend an average of $1,500 annually on course materials, including textbooks, access codes and other required class materials, according to University Libraries.

Between 2016 and 2017, the libraries estimated that OAT saved close to $1.6 million, impacting approximately 8,000 students at Rutgers, according to the site. 

“We aim to provide incentive awards to full-time teaching faculty, including part-time instructors and lecturers, to give them incentive to redesign the course from something costly to something more affordable and ideally free for students,” Todorinova said.   

Because it is an incentive-based program, the libraries look at before-and-after comparisons, she said. It expects faculty to chip away at high-cost courses. Some of these courses, like biology, or other potential general-education classes, are important because students take them earlier on in their Rutgers career. 

As a result, affordability can affect student-retention rates, she said.

To receive funding and become a faculty participant in the program, applicants must meet specific criteria, according to the Application and Criteria section of the site.

Criteria includes information regarding how much students could potentially save, a plan to address the new material's impact on student learning and education affordability, sustainability and support from the chair of the professor's department. 

The application period will open again in October, according to the site. Todorinova said interested faculty can contact her for more information.

Petros Levounis, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (RNJMS) and recipient of an OAT award in 2016, said the process helped students save money and learn new skills.

“I feel that the students are excited about it — not having to pay so much money and getting use out of the skills required to contribute, such as checking work and editing,” Levounis said.

His students used Google Forms to collaborate with each other and himself on making the textbook and writing questions and answers regarding different clinical practices, he said. 

“There are several layers of reviewing information before the book is complete," Levounis said. 

The book must be reviewed at RNJMS before going back to be reviewed as a class, he said. Once complete, the finalized book can be published and made available for future students.

He said the program is exciting and he is hopeful it will become an annual occurrence.

OAT is not limited to the medical field. Various Rutgers faculty have engaged with the program, according to University Libraries. These include educators in the departments of History, Plant Biology, Geography and more, including the Camden and Newark campuses. 

While being fairly new in just its second year, 60 faculty and staff have received OAT grants for their classes.  

“The program is available to anyone in charge of the course material," Todorinova said. "We are aware that in some cases the instructor has no control over what the course mandates, but otherwise the program is very open.”

Christopher Robertson

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