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Checking out a new way to save students money through e-book licensing

Jan 16, 2024

IU is a leader in Open Education Resources, which include teaching and learning materials, such as syllabi, course structures and textboo... IU is a leader in Open Education Resources, which include teaching and learning materials, such as syllabi, course structures and textbooks, that can be shared under a license allowing others to freely use and revise them. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Indiana University Libraries has been testing a new way to lower student out-of-pocket costs on a large scale: through new opportunities in e-book licensing.

IU Libraries used $13,500 in donor funds to save nearly 3,000 students a combined $167,000 in out-of-pocket book purchases in the fall semester — an average of $57 per student. In collaboration with Follett Higher Education Group, IU’s new bookstore vendor, several books assigned by instructors were purchased as e-books with simultaneous-use licenses. This means an unlimited number of IU users can access the electronic content at the same time, and students no longer need to purchase the book to participate in the class.

Going forward, IU faculty members who submit course materials to the IU Bookstore may receive notice from IU Libraries if a book on their syllabus was purchased with a simultaneous-use license. A link to the e-book will then be provided to include in the course syllabus, allowing students to access certain titles free of charge by shifting the book expense from individual students to the library.

“When we learned Follett was willing to work with us, it changed the whole game,” said Karen Stoll Farrell, head of scholarly communication for IU Libraries. “There is no other way to create the scale we are getting through centralized information sharing.”

Pedro Machado, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History and director of the Dhar India Studies Program, said he considers the cost of books when deciding which titles to make required reading in his courses.

“I try to avoid assigning 15 books students need to buy, and if a book I want in hard copy costs $75, I won’t use it,” he said.

Machado assigned “The Indian Ocean in World History” in his fall 2023 intensive writing seminar. The book retails for $36.99, an out-of-pocket expense for each of his 20 students. IU Libraries was able to negotiate an unlimited license for $263.18, saving students in the class a combined $739.80. As a permanent purchase, all future student and faculty access is also paid for, which means the cost savings will continue to grow each semester the book is assigned.

IU Libraries has been testing a new way to lower student out-of-pocket costs on a large scale: through new opportunities in e-book licens... IU Libraries has been testing a new way to lower student out-of-pocket costs on a large scale: through new opportunities in e-book licensing. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“We knew this would be valuable, but we didn’t know how valuable,” Farrell said.

IU announced its bookstore partnership with Follett Higher Education Group in March 2022. Follett provided IU Libraries with a list of all assigned course readings reported by Bloomington faculty and listed the retail price for each item.

One item on that list was “Nirvana: Concept, Imagery, Narrative,” a required reading assigned by Richard Nance, associate professor in the College’s Department of Religious Studies. Sensitive to student budgets, Nance said he requests that a copy of any assigned book be put on reserve at IU Libraries, giving students shared access to the physical book for limited times inside the library.

This fall, the assigned book was available to students free of charge thanks to the unlimited-use purchase.

“Our new bookstore vendor, Follett, has made all the difference and is allowing us to multiply our donors’ money into a ten-times savings,” Farrell said.

For Nance, library purchasing of e-book licenses removes another important barrier.

“I would like to be able to assign materials without worrying about what they cost,” Nance said. “I want to make my choices based on what is interesting. I want to focus my attention on assigning good reading.”

A leader in Open Education Resources

The dozens of books in the fall 2023 purchase have something in common beyond their simultaneous-user licenses: None of them are considered “textbooks” by their publisher.

“Publishers of textbooks don’t generally license to libraries because that’s how they make a lot of their money,” Farrell said. “In other words, we simply can’t get it.”

This barrier to student savings has sparked Open Education Resources initiatives across the country. The initiatives include teaching and learning materials that have been created to be shared under a license that allows others to freely use and revise them. Open Education Resources can include entire courses, media, syllabi or even textbooks that are free to students and instructors. These materials are not published by large, for-profit textbook vendors but instead by academic institutions and nonprofit publishers.

IU is a leader in this space. In 2023, IU Press was a top contributor in the first Big Ten Academic Alliance open-access publishing adventure, Open Books. IU Libraries also conceived the donor-funded Course Material Fellowship Program, a template now used by other academic libraries.

Farrell, along with experts in IU Libraries’ Scholarly Communication Department, offers faculty assistance with finding, evaluating, adapting and sharing Open Education Resources. IU Libraries has a designated open education librarian, and its strategic plan names affordable course materials as a focus for the future.

“We are always trying to think about how we can have the most impact on the most people,” Farrell said.

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