By Patricia O’Sullivan
July 9, 2019
Dr. Michelle Baragona is a planner. As Vice President of Instruction at Northeast Mississippi Community College (NEMCC), Dr. Baragona knew the college had to do something proactive in the face of the rising cost of education, an outdated computer infrastructure, and a national trend of decreasing enrollments.
With the vision and support of NEMCC’s President, Dr. Ricky G. Ford, the college partnered with Apple to provide iPads to each incoming student in Fall 2013. The following year, the college contracted with e-textbook provider, Vital Source, to provide digital textbooks to students. The final piece of the digital transformation plan came when Public Speaking instructor, Dr. Justin Treloar, heard of a grant offered by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation through the University of Mississippi. The grant offered stipends to higher ed faculty throughout the state to replace their textbooks with open educational resources (OER). During the first year of the grant, a handful of instructors at NEMCC took part. They were so impressed with the benefits of OER and the training and support provided by Lumen Learning, they convinced a dozen more instructors to take part in the grant program the following year.
As faculty made each of these changes, Dr. Baragona and her colleagues were not sure any one piece of the digital transformation would work, but President Ford had faith in his faculty’s expertise and sense of shared mission. Now, six years later, Dr. Baragona has the data to validate the digital transformation of the NEMCC campus, and she credits the NEMCC faculty with leading the transformation, “I cannot stress how lucky we were to have a team of faculty who helped push the agenda forward. The administration provided the vision, but the faculty are the heart of how that vision was achieved.”
While the fee for a school-issued iPad is $354.00, that is a one-time fee for students, and ensures they have the tools they need to access all of the academic and support apps they will need to succeed at NEMCC. In addition, students who already have an iPad may opt out of purchasing one from the school. Although 100% of students were given an opportunity to purchase an iPad in Fall 2016, only 36% of courses at NEMCC were digital. This figure represents a campus in transition as Dr. Baragona worked with faculty and with Vital Source to ensure students could have both online and offline access to digital textbooks. Students who opt to purchase print copies of their textbook will also save money as the college has ensured that print copies of digital textbooks sold at the college bookstore will not exceed $30-40. Digital textbooks will not exceed $150. By Fall 2019, Dr. Baragona estimates 94.5% of all classes at NEMCC will offer a digital version of the textbook for students.
Hand-in-hand with the push to provide digital versions of textbooks was a push to encourage faculty to consider replacing publisher textbooks with OER textbooks. This effort resulted in a surprisingly enthusiastic and quick response from faculty. In fact, so many faculty teams adopted open textbooks and customized them for their students, that Dr. Treloar requested a block grant from the University of Mississippi in order to locally manage faculty support. In Fall 2016, 27% of all classes at NEMCC used OER materials as their primary text. The majority of these customized texts are developed on Lumen Learning’s Candala platform and integrated into the school’s learning management system, Canvas. By Fall 2019, 66% of all classes at NEMCC will use OER.
While the average cost of textbooks per course was $122.00 in Fall 2016, because of OER, that average cost has dropped to $26.53 per class. If we consider the average student at NEMCC takes 10 classes annually, from Fall 2016 to Fall 2019, students are saving $954.70 per year. That number represents over half of the cost of tuition for in-state students and 30% of tuition for out-of-state students. Since Fall 2016, the digital transformation triad of iPads, digital textbooks, and OER have saved students at NEMCC $5 million.
In yet a further outgrowth of their OER success, as of Fall 2018 NEMCC is the first post-secondary institution in Mississippi to offer a complete Z-degree. The University of Mississippi began the Z-Degree initiative in 2016. Z-Degree is a plan to expand adoption of OER in Mississippi public higher education. When faculty adopt OER for their courses, those courses are tagged as “Z-Degree” on the course schedule, indicating that they have “zero textbook cost.” Once enough courses are designated Z-Degree, it is possible for students to earn a degree with no textbook costs. A student at NEMCC can complete a degree in general studies without needing to pay for a single textbook.
Beyond cost savings, however, is a more important narrative about access correlating with success. In Fall 2016, 76% of students at NEMCC scored A’s, B’s, or C’s in their classes. By Fall 2018, that success rate reached 80%. While research needs to be done to determine the causes of this increase, the combination of free and open textbooks and the customization of these textbooks by faculty teams for the NEMCC student population is transforming the way students and instructors experience course materials.