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Nicolet slashes textbook costs in many classes

Feb. 8, 2018

For many college students, there’s no way around it.

Textbooks are expensive.

Students commonly shell out hundreds of dollars each and every semester for the required books.

To cut textbook costs, Nicolet College recently changed the way it provides educational materials for many classes so students can get everything they need for free.

“We piloted the program this past fall and we estimate that it saved students about $30,000 that first semester,” said Cindy Domaika, manager of Open Educational and Instructional Resources at Nicolet.

Now in its second semester, Domaika estimates the program is saving current students another $39,000.

“Going forward we expect to significantly expand this program to more and more classes. We don’t want the cost of textbooks to be a barrier for students to receive a college education.”

To replace traditional textbooks, Domaika collaborated with a dozen Nicolet instructors across 16 classes to find open sourced educational materials available online for free.

The majority of the material came from, a vast, content-rich website where educators from across the globe openly share a wide variety of instructional material that is available at no cost.

“This is a major shift in how students access learning materials they need,” Domaika explained. “Sources range from electronic textbooks to videos and PowerPoint presentations to a wide variety of other content that is available entirely in an electronic format.”

Student Gayle Shanks meets with Instructor Ellen MatheinBusiness Management student Gayle Shanks is taking two Nicolet classes this semester where all the learning material is available at no cost.

“I can’t tell you how nice it is to get everything I need for class for free,” she said. “The cost savings is significant and much appreciated.”

Shanks noted that she has two sons enrolled at other colleges. One son just spent more than $700 for his semester’s textbooks. At Nicolet, the average full-time student spends about $600 a semester on textbooks, depending on the program.

At the end of last semester, Domaika sent out a survey to the 156 students who took at least one class taught with Open Educational Resources (OER) material.

“It was pretty clear students really liked it. We received many positive responses, the most common of which was that the material was totally free,” she said. “This freed up money so students could pay for other things like car insurance and child day care.”

Other aspects students liked were that everything was electronic and easily accessible either as a file they could download to their computer or was posted online. The fact that they didn’t have to lug around another 10-pound textbook was another big draw, which one student surveyed described as “awesome.”

Other students also provided written comments.

“I never got the feeling that I was reading information I didn’t need to know. The content was very direct and delivered very efficiently,” wrote one student.

“Being able to download the material and have it on my laptop was great,” wrote a student in a chemistry class who also greatly appreciated the fact that they didn’t have to drop $300 for the chemistry textbook.

“There were times when I found myself needing slightly more information or a clearer description of a topic, and it was nice for that to be only a click away from a Google tab and the endless cross-references,” wrote another.

Some students, however, weren’t that keen on the idea that everything was electronic and online.

“They wanted the paper version, and for these students we made sure they could always print out the material if they wanted,” Domaika said.

Business Management Instructor Ellen Mathein was an early adopter of OER material at Nicolet. Currently, three of the five classes she teaches feature free instructional material for students.

“Textbooks can be a tremendous financial burden for students, to the point where some students will try to take a class without purchasing the textbook because they simply can’t afford it,” Mathein said. “That puts them at a significant disadvantage in learning the content and OER material directly addresses this issue.”

When she was first introduced to the concept, Mathein wondered if the quality of the material would be on par with traditional textbooks.

“The more I dug into it, the more I realized that the academic rigor of the material was equal to the textbook I was using,” she said. “In some respects, it’s even better.”

Domaika stressed that all of the material that makes it into a Nicolet OER class goes through a rigorous review process to ensure it meets academic standards.

“We make sure that all of the material is peer reviewed by faculty at other colleges and universities,” said Domaika, who noted OER content is relatively new to higher education and that Nicolet is one of the first in the state to adopt it as extensively as a free resource for students.

Every Nicolet class has a list of course competencies that outline the subject matter to be learned in that course.

To gather the educational material that covers all of the competencies, instructors and Domaika worked hand in hand to find course materials.

“What’s nice is that I can customize the content to exactly what students need,” Mathein explained. “I can take the chapters I want from an electronic textbook, delete the rest, and then add in other instructional material that teaches to the specific competencies in the course.”

As for the future of free Open Educational Resource material in Nicolet classes?

“This is just in its infancy,” Domaika said. “I think it’s going to grow dramatically as more quality content becomes available. Our goal is to have a zero textbook cost for every student.”

In the photo above, Business Management student Gayle Shanks, left, meets with Instructor Ellen Mathein, one of the dozen Nicolet instructors who piloted the initiative to use Open Educational Resources (OER) in place of costly textbooks.