TRU was praised as a leader in the use of open textbooks by visiting Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson, but only a relatively small number of professors and students are using the freely available books.
The already serious financial strain of paying to attend university is aggravated for most students by the high cost of textbooks. Some TRU professors have opted to ease the strain on their students by offering the use of open textbooks – course materials that are openly licenced (typically under Creative Commons) and available free of charge. They can also be shared, changed or duplicated for free.
TRU sociology professor Ron McGivern uses an open textbook for his Intro to Sociology class. According to McGivern, the textbook began as an American Intro to Sociology textbook, but it has since been altered to better suit Canadian students. McGivern was involved with making changes to two of the book’s chapters. He estimated the price of the typical textbooks replaced by the free open one at $160 per student.
Work with open textbooks by McGivern and others at TRU led to a visit from B.C. Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson on Nov. 10. Wilkinson referred to TRU as “a big leader” in the use of open textbooks in B.C.
Wilkinson went on to say that university students are a captive audience for textbook publishers and that their choice in the matter is limited.
“We’re trying to push back on that. In 2012 our government decided that it’s time to use the resources of people like Ron McGivern to actually put together our own material. There are now 120 open textbooks available online for free. They are used in 29 different courses here at TRU, saving students at TRU something in excess of $10,000,” Wilkinson said.
When asked about the practical application of open textbooks, Wilkinson said that they were best suited for standardized introductory courses. He mentioned that 50 different open textbooks were being successfully used in adult basic education and trades programs, as well.
While acknowledging open textbooks have applications at earlier levels, Wilkinson does not foresee a situation where open textbooks could apply to fourth-year or graduate courses because they are too specialized.
Wilkinson also acknowledged the greater workload that the use of open textbooks places on professors. Professors that use standard textbooks are given free study materials, online resources and exam banks by the publisher, while those using open textbook have to generate their own content.
“We’re trying to do this to make your education more relevant to you [and] more affordable. It does put more workload on your profs, but we think it’s as good or better than buying it from some big fancy publisher,” Wilkinson said.
The Ministry of Advanced Education invested $1 million in open textbook development in 2012. According to Wilkinson, the money went towards developing distribution structures and paying authors.
Adoption of open textbooks is becoming more common, but Wilkinson called it “a guerilla movement” at this point.
“Further adoption will be at the initiative of individual faculty members,” McGivern said.
Students also have a role to play in lobbying for the adoption of open textbooks. According to Wilkinson, the Ministry of Advanced Education is “working with student associations around the province and suggesting that they put pressure on their institutions and on their profs.”