Modeling Social Justice through Innovative, Low-Cost Textbook Options for Social Work Students

Dr. Becky Anthony

Dr. Victoria Venable

Both Dr. Victoria Venable and Dr. Becky Anthony (@becky_anthony)  and are assistant professors in the Department of Social Work at Salisbury University. In this blog post, they write about designing and self-publishing a course workbook for a generalist level basic interviewing skills practice course. They also share results from a pilot evaluation the workbook and supplemental materials.

The cost of textbooks is problematic for many students at American colleges and universities. College textbook prices have increased by 82% from 2003 to 2013 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). This economic injustice causes students to miss out on educational opportunities because they have to prioritize paying for their basic needs over textbooks. According to a 2014 study, over 65% of students reported they did not buy a textbook because the cost was too high (Student PIRGs, 2014). If students are not purchasing the book, they cannot read for class – this revelation caused us to brainstorm creative ways to engage students by lowering the cost of textbooks, in hopes of increasing their reading. As social workers, the NASW Code of Ethics asks us to challenge social injustices. We viewed the price of textbooks as a social injustice and explored options that would allow our students to better participate in their learning experience.

Another challenge with textbooks is that the content within the books themselves is so abundant, and it can come off as general reference knowledge as opposed to being information needed for their course. Our first step to addressing the problem of high-cost textbooks was to explore creating a cheaper textbook option for students in our class.  We found a variety of social work textbooks, however, many covered topics that were more far reaching than the focus of our course and cost more than $50 per book. We also examined open source or open educational resources available on the web such as Open Educational Resources Commons or Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT). However, we were unable to find specifically what we needed for our seven-week Basic Interviewing Skills course.

Our next step was to see how other faculty across our campus were handling the textbook issue.  The cost of textbooks not only effects social work students, it effects all students across campus. We researched and met with faculty from other disciplines to hear from others about what faculty can do to decrease textbook prices.  We learned that faculty are choosing to rely more on course packets and open source materials. As our knowledge increased, so did our desire to create something unique and personalized for our course. Due to the practice nature of this course, we wanted students to be able to engage with the written material, mostly in table format or in short paragraphs, and have  learning activities to help them apply the knowledge learned.  We decided to create a customized, self-published workbook for the course. Utilizing a web-based software program, Createspace, we were able to develop our own workbook and have it self-published. Createspace is produced by, which allows anyone to create their own book and sell it via those two websites. Every user has to create a free account. Once the account is created, the author can watch tutorials and download templates. Once downloaded, the template is easy to use and allows for text to be copied and pasted into the document. Books of any size can be published and the authors own the copyright to the book. As authors, we also set the price. We decided to sell the book for ten dollars. We wanted to make sure students were able to afford it, but we also needed to charge some money in order to self-publish the books. As authors, we do receive royalties for these workbooks. In the interest of social change, we decided to use these royalties to fund social work student research projects and social work faculty professional travel, as both areas are currently underfunded within our university system.  Here is link to the book on Amazon:

In addition to creating workbook content we also worked with student actors from the theater department and volunteers who were in the specialization year of the MSW program to design role play videos that work in conjunction with several of the workbook activities. The videos are accessible to any student enrolled in the course via our University’s learning management system.

As a part of creating the workbook, we also wanted to ensure that we were putting in place mechanisms to evaluate its effectiveness and impact on students and teaching. We decided to treat the first year (Fall 2016) implementing the workbook as a pilot test. The idea being that we would take whatever feedback and data from the first year and adapt the workbook for the next year. We designed a simple study focused on evaluating the impact of the workbook and resources on the learning experience of students and instructors in the course.

All students enrolled into the basic interviewing skills course during Fall 2016 were asked to participate in this study. In addition, all instructors (both faculty and adjuncts) of the course were invited to participate. We decided to utilize a mixed methods online survey created with Survey Monkey that involved 11 Likert scaled questions and 3 open-ended questions.

Overall the findings and feedback was reassuring from our study. Even though there was a relatively small response rate (25%) students indicated that they liked the workbook more than a traditional textbook and that they found the workbook to be convenient and affordable. More specifically, 88.89% of students felt that the workbook was affordable for their budget. Over 90% of the participants indicated that they were more likely to read the workbook as compared to a traditional textbook. And over 85% of students agreed that the workbook was easier for them to understand than some of their traditional textbooks.

Students’ responses to the open-ended questions also provided helpful information about what worked or could be improved about the workbook. When students were asked to list one thing that they liked about the workbook, many indicated that they appreciated the supplementary material (e.g. activities, homework, examples), how applicable the information was to the class activities, and that the amount of material covered was very manageable.

Students indicated that there could be some improvements to the workbook, but most were very minor and constructive For example, they wanted more and better examples for the text, activities, and homework. Several comments indicated a desire for clearer instructions for the homework and activities.

Instructor responses were also positive overall. All instructors who took the survey indicated that the workbook activities were beneficial to their instruction of the course and assisted them in teaching the course (e.g. provided supplemental activities or content for small group work). Importantly, all instructors felt that compared to other courses they have taught which utilize traditional textbooks, students were more likely to read the Basic Interviewing Skills workbook.

There some significant lessons that we learned from this experience. First, we realized that we had created a workbook with effective activities and content for this type of course. Students appreciated the focus of the workbook and the balance between content and application. Instructors also saw the utility of this type of workbook. We also recognized that the workbook must work in conjunction with the learning management system and in-class lecture content in order to provide the strongest learning experience for students. It is clear that our workbook functions best not as a stand-alone resource, but in connection with the supplemental materials housed within the learning management system.

Even though we were able to collaborate with both MSW and theater students, the quality of our videos needed to be enhanced. We also needed to diversify the types of videos  that we were using to include different demonstrations of intake sessions or goal planning discussions. In the future, we hope to secure a grant that will allow us to create higher quality videos for the workbook.

The biggest lesson learned was to resist the urge to move beyond basics and inundating the workbook with too many skills. This could have easily lead to an unwieldy and unorganized resource for students. One way we managed this was to consider that the workbook was designed specifically for this course, and that there are other books students purchase for future practice courses that provide more in-depth exploration of practice skills.

Overall, we recommend taking the time to customize course resources and materials to help decrease costs for students and increase the focus of content. One ideal vehicle is Createspace. It is user-friendly and allows for you to update the design and content, based on feedback from students and professors. Should you have additional questions about the workbook or about utilizing Createspace, please contact the authors.  Or share your own experiences with self-published textbooks by adding a comment to this post.


Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014). Consumer Price Index Databases. Retrieved from

Student PIRGs (2014). Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond To High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternative. Retrieved from

Venable, V.M. & Anthony, B. (2016.) Basic Interviewing Skills and Techniques: A Workbook for Application Paperback, 2nd Edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

How to Cite this post:

Venable, V.M. & Anthony, B. (2017, September 27). Modeling Social Justice through low-cost textbooks for Social Work Students [Blog Post]. Retreived from:

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

Dr. Hitchcock served as the editor for this blog post. The author is the Guest Educator.

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