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Graduate sociology students study course material affordability for Gelman

Emma Caamano | Photographer
Graduate students enrolled in a sociology class are working with libray staff to design the project and propose change to make class materials more affordable

Graduate students enrolled in a sociology class this semester are investigating the cost of course materials for undergraduate students.

Students involved with the effort said they will spend the semester conducting interviews with undergraduates to produce a report on textbook and class material affordability for GW Libraries. They added that they aim to gather personalized experiences about course materials from undergraduate students through interviews to help find solutions to make materials more affordable.

Rachel Landis, a second-year doctoral student studying public policy and health policy who is enrolled in the class, said she is part of a subset of the class in partnership with the Open Educational Resources team, a group in Gelman Library that studies course material affordability. She said her team is interviewing undergraduate students who filled out an online survey saying that they have had difficulty accessing affordable course materials.

One of the graduate students reached out to each undergraduate who filled out the survey to set up a meeting to speak more extensively about their experience, according to the survey. Interviews took place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 8, the survey states.

“The present research is intended to help strengthen OER programming and provide evidence to University faculty and administrators about the urgent need to structure courses using affordable and accessible materials,” Landis said in an email.

She said members of the Open Educational Resources team – which studies course material affordability – approached assistant professor of sociology Michelle Kelso before the semester began about conducting a semester-long research project on the issue.

She said students involved promoted the survey to undergraduates through flyers around campus, digital advertisements in Gelman Library and the Colombian College of Arts and Sciences newsletter. She said library staff are providing incentives, like entry into a raffle for a limited number of $5 printing vouchers, for students to participate in the study.

The three-credit course, Qualitative Methodology: Doing Field Research, meets once a week on Wednesdays, according to the schedule of classes. Students are tasked with conducting research projects based on data collection and observations taken in “natural settings,” according to the University bulletin.

Landis said the class’ students worked with library staff to create an outline for the project and design interview questions. She said the research project is divided into two teams, one that conducts in-person, one-on-one interviews and one that conducts focus groups with undergraduate students who filled out the survey.

Student Association leaders sent out a survey last November asking students where they purchase clickers and how much they pay for them. A report following the conclusion of a faculty-focused survey found that most professors are open to standardizing clickers to cut costs for students.

SA leaders partnered with members of the Faculty Senate in April to form the Academic Resource Subcommittee, which researches the price of required materials and suggests ways to reduce costs.

“Accessibility and affordability of course materials is an important issue that many undergraduates face, and we need to better understand not only what those issues look like, but also how GW and GW Libraries can help to make course materials affordable and accessible,” Landis said.

A Hatchet analysis of course materials for introductory courses across the largest disciplines found that the average cost of a single book in STEM courses is about $98, while the cost of a single book in non-STEM courses clocks in at about $53.

Nicholas Cucuras, a second-year graduate student studying international affairs, said high costs deter some students from buying textbooks for their classes, causing their grades to drop as a result.

“You are paying this much to go to an elite university – there should be a little help,” Cucuras said. “It’s just not very well planned.”

Jason Vergne, a student in the combined five-year bachelor’s/master’s program for sociocultural anthropology, said the course’s students are taking a “proactive” approach toward making course materials more accessible and affordable by meeting directly with students to hear firsthand about their issues. He said library officials were interested in conducting the project because they want to collect good data directly from students on the issue.

“They would like to get data about the student experience to help shape policies rather than just anecdotally people saying course materials cost too much – that doesn’t help anyone solve a specific problem,” Vergne said.

Vergne said that based on his own experience as an undergraduate, many students come to GW without an understanding of the most affordable ways to rent or purchase their course materials. He said a “fundamental shift” in the way students, specifically freshmen, are integrated into the GW community is required to help students find more affordable and accessible versions of their materials.

“They are not just claiming to have the solutions, but they are seeking out the student’s input in order to formulate strategies to enhance student success,” Vergne said. “I think it is a really important story that people know that there are real people within the institution working hard on behalf of the students.”

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