Professors shift to new online sources, save students money

As textbook costs rise, teachers have looked for new methods to get their points across.

Kristine Weatherston, an assistant media studies and production professor, doesn’t think wallets have to shrink when minds expand.

“Knowledge should be free,” Weatherston said.

In an effort to improve conceptual knowledge and reduce financial strain, Temple University Libraries collaborated with the Alternative Textbook Project to replace costly textbooks with innovative alternatives. Weatherston is one of many faculty members who applied to the Alternative Textbooks Project since its 2011 introduction.

The project asks professors to replace a textbook in their syllabus with an alternative source. Sources must be available to students with disabilities, transferable to future courses and more cost-effective than the textbook. Winning applicants are awarded a $1,000 grant to design lesson plans around selected alternatives.

Weatherston, the most recent recipient of the $1,000 grant, plans to use two websites, and The Center for Media and Social Impact at American University, in her documentary course to educate her students on fair use and copyright regulations. The integration of open-source materials will save each of her students an estimated $60, she said.

“MSP is moving away from traditional learning sources faster than other courses,” Weatherston said. “[The grant] hit me…[when] I was looking to make this shift anyway. It was a great incentive to get paid for this work. I’m very honored.”

Open-source materials, including the myriad databases available to students via Temple University Libraries, provide current information free of charge to students. As opposed to some textbooks, which Weatherston said “talk about YouTube like it’s new,” these open-source materials, including YouTube videos and digital camera tutorials available on smartphones, increase accessibility when teaching a range of students.

“Not everybody learns the same way,” Weatherston said. “If I can present the same knowledge in three or four different ways, if I can get a multimedia presentation ready, then I’m reaching my student audiences in ways that they can access information.”

In addition to increased accessibility, source diversity allows Weatherston to eliminate the single-authored textbooks’ “voice of God” effect to create a “symphony of sounds,” she said. However, Weatherston expressed concern about making the best decision in each situation.

 “I’m still the gatekeeper of the information,” Weatherston said. “That’s what professors do; we hone the info that’s specific for the course and make sure it’s relevant, correct and modern.”

In her efforts to circumvent the Internet’s distractions while properly vetting sources, Weatherston looks for certain credentials that leverage one source over another. Preferable for her course was someone who had made a documentary or taught documentary studies, “not just someone from Netflix who watches documentaries and writes a review.”

 Weatherston said her class cheered when she announced there wouldn’t be any textbooks to purchase. She joins past winners of the Alternative Textbooks Project Owen Ware and Keith Quesenberry.

 Ware, a 2013-14 Alternative Textbooks Project winner and a philosophy professor in the College of Liberal Arts, had struggled with the limitations strict anthologies imposed on his ability to direct his students. The transition to alternative texts allowed Ware to “play an executive role in the preparation stage,” he said.

        Quesenberry, a former Fox School of Business adjunct professor in “Morality, Law and Advertising,” found that his experience with the project unburdened students’ access to greater concepts.

        “The textbook was this thing they hated,” Quesenberry said. “This removed a barrier for them.”

        The criteria for alternative media is shifting as the project progresses. Currently the requirement for alternative media excludes electronic versions of print textbooks or textbook rentals. 2014-15 winners must also ensure that all materials are available for print, accessible to large groups of students and appropriate for entry-level curriculums.

        In deference to these regulations, Weatherston emphasizes that the project doesn’t pertain to every major sequence, nor does she predict a complete transition to alternative media. The timeliness of vetting and issues with data tracking tacks on a non-monetary cost to open-source materials.

        “None of this stuff is free – it’s free with an asterisk,” Weatherston said. “Someone’s got to pay for it somewhere.”

        Nevertheless, Weatherston maintains that the decision to transfer to alternative media was “easy to make.”

 Lora Strum can be reached at

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