Textbook project illustrates divide between NMC faculty and administration

Mar 17, 2016

Some faculty at NMC want to see students spend less on books and be able to use resources online instead.
Credit Peter Payette

Students at Northwestern Michigan College are buying fewer books these days. That's because of an effort to use more online resources in place of textbooks, which can cost more than $100 each.

A report on the project suggests the college administration take steps to promote the concept. But college officials say there are no plans for that.

The issue comes up at a time when some instructors at NMC say the administration does not listen to their ideas.

Pilot project

It’s not hard to find college students who don’t buy all the books they need for class. Kenna Marar didn’t buy any textbooks this semester, but she says she’s doing okay without them.

"Usually I’ll just ask questions in class or I’ll Google something relevant to the topic," she says. "That usually gets me through it."

Marar says she can’t afford the books. Last semester, she did buy them all and had hoped to sell them back.

"But I take the bus back and forth, and I had to stand out in the rain most days, so my books were a little wavy from the water," Marar says. "So they refused to buy them back from me. So this semester I was like, ‘screw it, not doing it. I can just deal with my grades taking a few hits for book assignments.’"

Lisa Blackford says she knows plenty of students who don’t buy the required textbooks, and she says there are more who keep it a secret.

"There’s a lot of shame involved in that," says Blackford, who teaches social work and psychology. "We have students that are sleeping in their cars, that are coming to class, and they sure as heck can’t afford to buy a textbook for one class, let alone half a dozen classes."

Blackford is excited about recent efforts to use fewer textbooks at Northwestern Michigan College. She was part of the pilot program for faculty to work with librarians to find academic resources that are available for free online, called open educational resources.

"We look at journal articles and films and excerpts out of books and vet through all of that," she says, "making sure it’s valid and reliable information."

Blackford says this kind of information can be better than a textbook because the sources can be kept more up to date. She wants to see this approach to learning promoted across the campus.

"This is one less hurdle, a big hurdle, for students to get the education that they’re paying for," says Blackford.

Any role for the administration?

So far it has been up to teachers and librarians to promote this.

The pilot project was funded by a $5,000 innovation grant from the NMC Foundation. The final project report has a few recommendations for expanding the initiative.

It suggests the administration endorse the idea and make a policy to encourage the use of online resources. But vice president of educational services, Stephen Siciliano, says he doesn’t see a need for that.

"This is a role that faculty are the experts in, and if they feel that this is a good fit for them then certainly they should go ahead and do that," he says. "But I don’t think there should be a policy to suggest that this is something they should have to do."

The grant provided $500 stipends to ten different faculty members to compensate them for the time it takes to design a course without textbooks.

The report suggests NMC offer to compensate more faculty, especially adjuncts, who take on this work.

 But Stephen Siciliano doesn’t see that happening either. He says the process has been developed and librarians are there to help, and faculty can also help each other.

"As far as our adjunct faculty are concerned, what we encourage is that adjunct faculty are mentored by full-time faculty and it should be the full-time faculty that should provide that assistance," he says.

The 'lost voice'

It doesn't appear there will be an opportunity to discuss any of this. The grant report says a presentation would be given in February to the president's council and the board of trustees. That did not happen and no presentation is scheduled.

The faculty formed a union last year and is bargaining for a first contract. They say what they want most of all is a larger role in governing the college.

Bronwyn Jones, an instructor in the communications department, says what has happened with the open educational resources project is 'a good example' of the kind of thing instructors are talking about when they say they have lost their voice at NMC.

Lisa Blackford declined to comment on the union dispute. But she does think the administration and trustees should be interested in hearing about the work she and her colleagues have been doing.

"I think they would be really excited to see that this has been a great resource for students," she says. "And anything that’s good for our students, anything that’s saving our students money, I would think that would be something NMC would be really proud of."

And it did save students money. According to the grant report, 348 students saved more than $58,000.