Affordable Education Champion: Dr. James Curley

In celebration of Open Education Week 2021, the Senate of College Councils and UT Libraries partnered to solicit nominations from students across campus to recognize instructors who increased access and equity by selecting free or low cost course materials for their classes. We’ll be recognizing a few of those nominees this week as Affordable Education Champions!

Affordable Education Champions are instructors who assign free or low cost resources — like textbooks, websites, films, and more — for their courses. Sometimes they author their own materials, and sometimes they’re able to reuse free or low cost work created by others. We share gratitude and appreciation for their commitment to fostering access to high quality education at the lowest possible cost barrier for their students. 

Today, we congratulate and thank Dr. James Curley, who was nominated by his students in PSY 317L (Introduction to Statistics for Behavioral Sciences) in the College of Liberal Arts. 

Dr. Curley received his B.A. in Human Sciences at The University of Oxford (UK) in 1999. He was a member and scholar of Somerville College, Oxford. In 2003, he received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Cambridge (UK). His Ph.D research was conducted at the Department of Animal Behaviour, Cambridge, on the effects of imprinted genes on brain and behavioral development, particularly maternal and sexual behavior.

He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge for four years researching behavioral development, particularly how early life experiences shape individual differences in behavior. He was also the Charles & Katharine Darwin Research Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge.

Following this work he joined the Psychology Department at Columbia University, where he continued to work on the development of social and maternal behavior. From 2012-2017, he was a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. There, he established a research group studying social dynamics and social dominance hierarchies.

His lab at UT focuses on the neurobiological basis of social behavior in groups, as well as the long-term plastic changes in the brain and peripheral physiology that occur as a consequence of social status. They also are interested in developing novel methods for the study of social hierarchies and networks.

When asked what led him to author his own resources for required course materials, Dr. Curley told us about the many ways that his textbook and tools respond to student needs. “I have long thought that the cost of textbooks is too high. So I was clear from the beginning of designing this course that I wanted to make the textbook materials freely available. I found some excellent open source free online textbooks for statistics and programming. I then decided that I would write my own textbook [Introduction to Statistics for Behavioral Scientists using R] to be able to focus in more detail on the areas of stats and programming that I was introducing in my course. So then I spent last Summer (2020) co-writing the textbook for the course with my graduate student Tyler Milewski. For each module, I give readings from my textbook or another excellent free one online and let the students choose which they prefer to go with.

I also realized that a benefit of writing an online open source textbook was that I could update it in real time. If students want more explanations about certain topics, then it is relatively easy for me to write extra details or examples in the book and publish immediately. Obviously with the old textbook model it isn’t easy to update that quickly.

Finally, many students like to learn through interactive hands-on tools. Therefore I’ve been building a catalogue of browser based tutorial guides that students can play around with to learn statistics concepts. These sorts of materials are not part of traditional textbook offerings, so clearly making them freely available is the only way to go!”

While PSY 317L has never relied on a commercial textbook, Dr. Curley observes that compared to other courses where expensive texts were used, “students engaged a lot more with the textbook in this course. I think that is largely due to my tailoring its content to my course and the fact that it was available online in the browser. Students definitely comment on how glad that the textbook is free.”

We heard the same thing in Dr. Curley’s nomination. Students appreciated the savings, but they also deeply valued the breadth of free materials available to them — not to mention Dr. Curley’s own availability to support them throughout the class. 

“Stats was a really intimidating class for me, but having tons of free resources available, like videos, textbooks, websites, and SO MANY office hours, made me finally feel like I understood why UT wants psychology majors to learn statistics. Honestly, I think everyone should take a class like this because the skills we learned are applicable to so many different fields. [With the money I saved in this class, I] didn’t have to worry about whether I would be able to pay for the materials needed to do well in the class and instead could just focus on learning.” — Sophomore, Psychology Major

If you are an instructor thinking about adopting free or affordable course materials, Dr. Curley offers this advice: “I think it is well worth connecting with faculty at other institutions to see what they might be using. There are a lot of innovations in different fields and many faculty are very aware of the need to try and make materials affordable. I was pleasantly surprised by how many options there were for statistics and programming. Obviously writing your own textbook is not feasible for every course, but I found that doing this really led me to understand how best to deliver the material to students and was a really great use of preparation time for my class.”

Please join us in thanking Dr. Curley for his contribution to making UT an inclusive and equitable environment where students can succeed without high course materials costs!

If you know of an instructor who is dedicated to making their courses as affordable as possible by selecting free or low cost course materials, let us know by contacting Ashley Morrison, Tocker Open Education Librarian ( 

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