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Textbook Equity and Service-Learning: A Match Made in Heaven?

Posted on Thursday, May 4th, 2023

Our post today is by SLL Librarian facilitator, Anne Marie Gruber, Liaison & Textbook Equity Librarian at University of Northern Iowa.

As we approach the end of another academic year and I approach mid-career, I'm finding myself being reflective about my roles, my institution (University of Northern Iowa), my impact, and my connections with students, faculty, and colleagues. It's from that stance that I write this post, which I fully admit is an ill-formed thought experiment!

Like most of you, I wear several hats in my professional life. I am a liaison librarian for 11 programs and departments, including an Office of Community Engagement. My interests have allowed me to be quite involved in the service-learning efforts on my campus, assisting with the annual Service-Learning Institute for faculty (which I've blogged about previously), helping evaluate applications for the Service-learning Course Designation, and supporting our upcoming reapplication for the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement.

I also coordinate our campuswide Textbook Equity initiative, which supports expanding use of free and affordable course materials, including Open Educational Resources (OER). The initiative is still quite grassroots, but has saved our students more than $1.5 million since tracking began in 2016. 

In recent years, I've been bridging my service-learning and textbook equity roles, what previously seemed to be two very different and unrelated areas within my librarianship duties. I recently had this thought: Can service-learning courses be one of the keys to advancing textbook equity? Hear me out:

We know traditional textbooks are often too expensive, far outpacing tuition and housing increases, albeit with some recent reasons for hope. They also may be limited in terms of usage rights and representation (see examples from economics and social work). On the other hand, free course materials can support equal access to information, improve academic success particularly for underrepresented students (see examples here, here, and here), and support belonging, a contributor to student success and retention.

I recall hearing Dr. Julianne Gassman, UNI's Director of Community Engagement once suggest that, in service-learning courses, the community is the text. When learning happens in the messy real world, as service-learning courses emulate, a traditional encyclopedic textbook may no longer fit the teaching and learning needs of the course. So perhaps thinking beyond the textbook should go hand-in-hand with incorporating active learning pedagogies into our courses.
Beyond that, service-learning and open pedagogy are natural partners. We have institutional examples of tremendous and inspiring student-created or student-curated projects from service-learning projects (see examples from environmental literature, 3D concepts, and language courses). Rod Library archived this copyrighted work and provides access to it. It's wonderful to share the results of creative collaborations with community partners.

But traditional copyright restrictions apply, so unless a fair use exemption applies, the material can't be reproduced or modified. If one more step were taken, applying an open license to the content, the material could be openly distributed, retained, customized, and built upon. Sharing the "products" of service-learning freely and openly would ensure an even broader impact. Isn't that the point of service-learning? Shouldn't we treat the products of community collaborations in similar ways to the collaborations themselves, broadly sharing so successes can be replicated and models can be built upon? It strikes me that using and creating open materials truly matches the values of community engagement.

What do you think? Have you used free, openly-licensed course materials in a service-learning course?  Have you openly-licensed materials co-created by students and community partners? What intersections do you see between service-learning and the textbook equity/OER movement? We'd love to hear your examples and learn about the impact. Maybe together we can flesh out this idea!