When I became a special education teacher several years ago, affordability was high on my list of considerations when it came to the programs I researched. After more than four years of undergraduate education and a few career misfires, I was not in a position to pay another year or two of tuition, books, and fees; when I made my list of education expenses, every dollar counted. Luckily, I found a program that worked for me financially and, three years later, a special educator was born.
Now that I am a special education teacher educator, I often think of the big external factors that helped get me through my credential program; amazing camaraderie among my classmates/colleagues, accessible quality supports, and an affordable program. Ultimately, as a credential student, I found a program I was able to afford and a cohort of like-minded individuals who became my family as we trudged through teaching by day and classes by night and weekends for three years.
Fast forward more years than I like to admit and here I am as a faculty member in the California State University, Channel Islands School of Education in the special education department. Upon hire, I did what I thought I was supposed to do and adopt textbooks for my courses; textbooks that had been in use for years before my time at the university. For two years, students paid well over a hundred dollars for textbooks for each of the two classes I taught. Students openly discussed textbook sharing or checking out the book from the library reserves in an effort to cut costs. To help, I put multiple copies on reserve and kept a desk copy in my office for check out.
Two years into my appointment, I was approached with the idea of finding low or no-cost materials for my credential classes with support from the library faculty and staff and I chomped at the bit. Within a few months, the over one hundred dollar textbook was gone and, in its place, was a series of equally quality readings on the various topics in my course. Students were incredibly appreciative of the savings and, nothing was lost in terms of quality or rigor of materials. In fact, with the materials embedded in our learning management system, Canvas, accessible readings were available to all and distinctions did not need to be made between students who required accommodations for readings and those who did not. Talk about practicing what you preach!
The process of shifting from a traditional textbook to no-cost online materials was so smooth and easy to implement, I decided that I’d do the same for the other class I taught. I called a colleague who teaches the same course, explained my intentions, and, within a few minutes, agreed that we’d set aside some time to comb through relevant materials and create another cost-free course in the special education program. A year later, in collaboration with the department, every course in the special education credential program at CSUCI was textbook-free at a savings of $27,362 for the 2019-2020 academic year.
This past year, CSUCI, along with many institutions of higher education across the nation, moved to distance learning. Challenges abound for students in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. After listening to students for the past semesters, I’ve heard stories of lost jobs and wages, the need to find more affordable housing, and in several cases, the need to move between households to take care of loved ones. More and more, I find that students are joining class sessions from a location other than home as their duties to manage in this environment are pushing them to work long hours outside the home and care for loved ones who cannot care for themselves. Simply having the ability to continue coursework by joining Zoom or Teams, accessing the materials, and submitting assignments online, has allowed our very dedicated student population to continue their educational pursuits as they march toward graduation and their professional goals. I am ever so grateful to my colleagues and university that all special education course materials are online and can go where our students need to be at this time, at work and with family, allowing them to continue in their pursuit of becoming special educators.
The factors that supported me on my professional journey to become a special educator are alive and well here at CSUCI; camaraderie, accessibility, and affordability. Due to my amazing colleagues in the special education department, my CSUCI family, we are able to support our students in becoming the next generation of special education teachers in Ventura County and, we are doing it without charging a penny for textbooks.