Institute for Teaching & Learning

CSU Affordable Learning Solutions

Brett Christie, Ph.D.
Academic Technology Services @ California State University

Brett ChristieBrett Christie, Ph.D., currently works for CSU Academic Technology Services and is a Professor of Education at Sonoma State University. His area of specialization is in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis in the effective uses of technology for teaching and learning. He has over 20 years experience in teaching and faculty development, having served as Director of Faculty Development at SSU from 2004-2011.  In addition, Brett has played a leadership role in multiple state and national projects related to faculty development efforts in teaching and technology, such as accessibility and Universal Design for Learning.

Since Spring 2010, CSU Affordable Learning Solutions (ALS) has developed tools and resources that enable campuses to drive down the cost of learning resources for students, while offering greater access to free or low-cost academic content for faculty. An initial outcome is a “one-stop shop” for faculty and students to explore the range of free and low-cost resources and tools available.

Between 1986 and 2004, textbook prices rose 186% in the U.S., or slightly more than six percent per year (GAO, 2005). The 2008 California Bureau of State Auditor Report indicates that CSU students paid $812 per year for textbooks, a significant percentage of students’ total cost for their education. Applying the historic textbook inflation trend of 6.1% annually means CSU students are now paying approximately $1,000 per year for textbooks. Collectively, CSU students are paying nearly $400,000,000 yearly for textbooks.

In a recent national Student Public Interest Research Group survey of 1,905 students at 13 college campuses, 70% of students reported not buying at least one of their required textbooks due to cost (SPIRG, 2011).  In addition, 79% of all students in this survey stated that they would do “worse/much worse” in a class without their own textbook. The inaffordability of course materials is a significant barrier for student success. As such, strategies for improving the affordable choices of course materials for our students has become part of many campus Graduation Initiative programs.

Higher education is at a “tipping point” for changes in the instructional content and learning methods faculty and students use to engage in quality education experiences. Significant changes are occurring in the pedagogy, business, and technology innovations for producing, discovering, marketing, selling, acquiring, managing, and adopting digital content.  These changes are producing shifts from the extensive use of commercially produced, printed textbooks and journals, to digital content that is produced by a wider range of non-commercial and commercial publishers.

CSU Campus ALS Campaigns Making a Difference

Each CSU campus has been working to improve the affordability of course materials for their students. There are some exemplary practices that are yielding significant results in lowering student costs while actually increasing quality and access.

CSU Dominguez Hills: Under strategic leadership of the President and Provost, the Library Dean and CIO collaboratively planned and customized a campaign in consultation with their Academic Senate, Associated Students, and other campus centers. This effort began in Fall 2010, with the development of a CSUDH Affordable Learning Solutions Initiative website.  In May 2011, over 70 CSUDH faculty members were recognized by the President, Provost, and Deans for their actions to choose alternate course materials that saved their students money. For example, Dr. Douglas Borcoman, Philosophy, selected free Open Educational Resources from MERLOT, a low-cost digital textbook ($47.00), and a low-cost authored book ($16.95), saving his 100 students an estimated $150 each.

Cal Poly Pomona:  The University Library launched their Affordable Learning Initiative website and services in Fall 2011. On September 28, 2011, the Academic Senate unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Affordable Learning Initiative program.  The bookstore is significantly expanding textbook rental offerings and has set significant student cost-reduction targets for 2011-2012.

California State University, Chico:  Under the leadership of the President and Provost, ALS has been integrated into a three-week faculty training program, Academy eLearning, that results in a year-long redesign effort. Faculty members receive in-depth training and support over the summer, setting them up for significant course transformation.

In addition, many CSU campuses are holding “affordable choices” events, typically collaborations between the bookstore, library, and faculty development center.  These are excellent awareness-raising opportunities for the high-quality, low-cost options that are available for faculty and students.

CSU Bookstores, Publishers, and Digital Rentals

In the Fall 2010, the CSU collaborated with the five major publishers, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Cengage, and Bedford, Freeman & Worth to evaluate a “digital rental” business model with etextbooks.  Approximately 3,000 students across five campuses participated by purchasing eBooks at a negotiated 65% discount off the new textbook cost, saving these CSU students about $300,000 in one semester.  Though the cost savings ($60 vs. $173) was highly valued by students, our research also found that one-third of the students liked the eBook, another one-third was neutral, and the last one-third did not like the eBook.  These proportions are very likely to shift significantly toward the digital-affirmative in the near future, as content, platforms, and devices mature. These and other findings from our yearlong research guided design of the Digital Rental Program, which is currently available to all campuses for fall 2012 textbook adoption. Providing students a choice of the format (print vs. digital) at different prices will enable the students to find the right balance for their learning and affordability needs. With only 1% of current bookstore sales being eBooks and 33% of the students preferring eBooks, there is a significant market for affordable, digital choices.

Designing eTexts from the Ground Up
The CSU and Nature Publishing Group collaborated to develop and deliver “born digital, interactive textbooks.”  Faculty at CSU Los Angeles, Northridge, and Chico helped design and have adopted the Principles of Biology text, which utilizes more than 175 interactive lessons and embedded assessments to help students master basic concepts, and draws on Nature journals’ expertise and extensive archive of research papers to cultivate mature research skills, including data analysis and critical thinking. As of Fall 2011, CSU students at five pilot campuses have access to this high quality, interactive, multimedia and digital text with unlimited printing rights and no expiration date for $35. The price of a traditional print introductory textbook for biology majors is over $200. Principles of Biology is accessible to students and instructors via web browsers on desktops, laptops, tablet computers and smartphones. We expect more opportunities for CSU and publisher partnerships, which will continue to change the business and technology strategies for quality instructional materials.

For further information regarding Affordable Learning Solutions, visit or contact Brett Christie,

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