Twenty-one faculty members from 12 state universities and community colleges will receive a series of “mini grants” from the University System of Maryland to help them expand open education resources and mitigate student fees.

Financed through the system’s William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation, the Maryland Open Source Textbook initiative’s High-Impact OER Mini-Grant Program provides faculty with funding between $500 and $2,500 to adopt, adapt, scale or create open education resources, or OERs, for their classes, said Kirwan Center Director MJ Bishop.

OERs are openly-licensed academic resources such as scholarly articles and texts that professors can reuse, redistribute and reconfigure how they like, Bishop said. These resources are used in place of traditional textbooks and bear no costs for students.

[READ MORE: A $100,000 grant would help the University System of Maryland promote open-source textbooks]

These grants are expected to save students enrolled in these courses $1.3 million in textbook costs for the fall 2017 semester, Bishop added. In the United States, the cost of textbooks has risen 812 percent since 1978, according to a system press release.

“We need to get back to the place where instructional materials for students aren’t so expensive where we have students making decisions not to purchase textbooks or not to enroll in courses,” she said.

Professors across the state were encouraged to apply for the grant if they teach high-enrollment courses where open resources are readily available, as “that’s where they’ll see immediate impact on student costs,” Bishop said. Open education resources for many upper-level and advanced courses haven’t been developed yet, meaning the professors of these classes would be forced to create something entirely new.

The system has asked grant recipients to keep any other supporting or instructional materials students might need under $40, she added.

The Community College of Baltimore County received six of the 21 grants, said college President Sandra Kurtinitis. The average student at CCBC is 37 years old and pays $400 to $500 on textbooks per year, she said.

Half of community college students work full time and may face other economic pressures that go beyond paying for tuition, fees and books, Kurtinitis added.

“It’s very hurtful to watch students who cannot afford to buy the books struggle to pass the class without them,” she said. “That’s a reality for some of our students, so I’m just delighted this mini-grant opportunity was available and really proud of my folks for lining right up and saying ‘We want to give this a try.'”

Most faculty receiving grants will customize available OER materials to better fit their courses and teaching styles, Bishop said.

Mini-grant recipient Bonni Miller, a lecturer at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said she has used open education resources in her classes — which include introduction to fiction and introduction to drama, among others — for more than four years. Some of these courses require long anthologies, Miller said, which can cost students up to $100 — even if they end up using just a small portion of the book.

“Those anthologies can just be so crazy expensive,” Miller said. “I spent a lot of my life as a student, so I remember how expensive those books are.”

Miller said she plans to use the funding to purchase software that will allow her to make pop-up notes in sample essays and documents online. She’ll also use the money to curate information students might find in an anthology — such as criticisms, analyses and other documents — that will be accessible to all University of Maryland Eastern Shore students and professors.

The funds will help some grantees take time off from work to curate and prepare the OERs for their courses, Bishop said. Miller, for example, said this project will essentially be her full-time job for two months this summer as she prepares for the fall semester.

[READ MORE: Four UMD student groups are creating surveys to guide textbook affordability solutions]

The system received 66 applications for the mini-grant program and accepted 21 due to limited funding, Bishop said. Faculty who did not receive a grant were encouraged to apply next year, she added.

The Textbook Cost Savings Act of 2017, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Rosapepe and Del. William Frick, will provide the system with $100,000 to promote the use of open education resources in fiscal 2019, allowing the system to provide more mini-grants in the future.

“It’s never gonna be true that instructional materials are entirely free … but the costs have gotten so out of whack for textbooks, we need to get back to a place that’s more reasonable, and I think OER is forcing that discussion,” Bishop said.