These Colleges Are Betting That Culturally Relevant Textbooks Will Improve Student Outcomes
Millie González and her colleagues aren’t here to argue about whether open educational resources are on par with traditional textbooks一she says research has borne that out.
González and Framingham State University, where she is interim director of Whittemore Library, are part of a consortium in Massachusetts looking to answer different questions. Like: What would happen if students had access to a catalog of free and一this is important here一culturally relevant textbooks? What if faculty of color were engaged in the process of creating books tailored to their classes?
“What would be the result for students, specifically students who are from underserved communities?” González says. “Usually when you hear any discussion about free textbooks, it really talks about just the cost, and what we’re saying is, it goes way beyond that.”
Six Massachusetts colleges and universities, alongside the state’s Department of Higher Education, are testing their hypothesis that free, culturally relevant textbooks can improve student performance.
The project, dubbed Remixing Open Textbooks through an Equity Lens, will have help from a three-year $441,000 federal grant. The funds will cover financial support and mentorship for faculty who create new open educational resources (OER for short) or adapt existing open textbooks. The books would be shared among 29 Massachusetts colleges with undergraduate programs.
“We hope to create a model that other states can use for their cultural relevance,” says Jess Egan, coordinator of instructional design at Holyoke Community College, one of the partners. “We’re trying to encourage a model of deliberately constructing or reconstructing OER to fit the needs of your learners and not necessarily just to create a textbook.”
The other institutional partners are Fitchburg State University, Northern Essex Community College, Salem State University and Springfield Technical Community College.
To explain the emphasis on cultural relevance, González calls on her memories of growing up in New York City. Her experiences couldn’t be further away from the examples her elementary school books centered on一farming.
“As a little girl, I’m like, ‘I don't know what’s happening on the farm.’ But everything was tailored to this one specific rural area, while I’m in Manhattan. It just didn’t fit,” she says.
But González is confident students will be able to see themselves reflected in the texts resulting from the grant: “With OER, we can certainly provide that experience for our students.”
Professors will be encouraged to pull local context and examples into their textbooks, González says, and to be inclusive of non-white narratives. About 39 percent of Framingham State University identify as people of color, with Latino and Black students representing 18 percent and 15 percent respectively.
“If you want to change the dynamic and make students engaged, you can include students in the making of your textbook,” she says.
The majority of commercial textbooks are produced in Texas or Florida, Egan says, and their cultural references reflect their origins.
“For us in New England一a very progressive, activist place一some of the principles being stripped out of the curriculum are why we’re here,” she says. “We want to emphasize critical race theory [and] decolonization.”
Egan is working with an anatomy and physiology professor who is ready to change up the images in her textbook, which features diagrams primarily of white males. That doesn’t work for a campus where about 1 in 4 students are Latino and 40 percent overall identify as people of color.
“It’s not reflective of the community, and it’s not preparing students to serve the community,” Egan says. “She would like to completely diversify the images so she can better demonstrate maternal health for Black women or diabetes for ‘XYZ community,’ and show them as practitioners what they’re going to be dealing with in the community.”
Filling the Gaps
Subjects like English and lower-level math are well-covered in the OER ecosystem. Egan says Remixing Open Textbooks through an Equity Lens has an opportunity to fill in the areas where open textbooks are more scarce, like early childhood education, health care and criminal justice. Faculty will have help from an advisory council made up of local employers in those same fields, including hospital staff whose feedback could inform changes to the anatomy and physiology text Egan mentioned.
“The faculty are identifying the gaps, and the hospital is providing insight on the gaps they’re seeing. It’s a good combination of community and equity and purposeful curriculum design,” Egan says.
Egan says creating and adapting open textbooks will likewise make college more nimble. They can add chapters as new skills become in-demand by employers or choose the format that works best for their classes.
“With things like social media marketing, if you printed 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 instance, the music professors Egan works with need to ensure their music theory text, which is eliminating textbooks for four classes, will be unbound. That will allow students to more easily use the sheet music that’s included.
“They said, ‘We need it printed in a certain way so when students are playing the piano, they can put the book this way.’ I had never thought about anything like that before,” she says. “[OER] is not just a PDF anymore.”
To gauge the program’s success, participating colleges will be looking at retention rates, grades and the number of faculty using the open textbooks. Librarians, technologists and designers will collaborate to analyze the program’s effectiveness and identify where students are struggling with the material.
“We know students don’t always buy the book, and it creates this cycle where they’re left behind,” Egan says. “So we have a very data-driven focus to make sure that not only is the cost going down but that we’re reaching populations that are in jeopardy right now.”
There are, of course, benefits to students’ pocketbooks when professors assign open course materials. With the program potentially generating up to 79 books, the participating institutions estimate that students will collectively save at least $800,000 in textbook costs. That could bring relief especially to students who are financially struggling 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, all of these materials will be given to them,” González says. “Then we’re saying to them, ‘By the way, you have to spend $1,000 on textbooks.’”
González hopes that colleges throughout Massachusetts and the country will adopt the materials produced by the project’s six partner institutions. At the very least, the project will encourage professors who plan to use their textbooks primarily as a reference to select an OER book.
“There’s so much great OER content we can absorb and then add that New England flavor, our regional flavor and一on top of that一that intentional cultural relevance that I think is so lacking,” she says.