Struggling to afford books?

There are obstacles, but free open-sourced textbooks are on their way to classrooms, and you can help get them there

The organization has been tasked with the production of the first 40 open textbooks for implementation across B.C. post-secondary institutions. (Image courtesy BCcampus)

Of the many significant expenses one incurs while attending post-secondary, perhaps none are as frustrating as lining up at the bookstore to purchase a textbook for hundreds of dollars only to find out over the course of the semester that you only needed it for a couple of its chapters.

There are people that are trying to fix that, and you can help them.

The solution may be the relatively new “open textbooks” model, which sees instructional material distributed in an open-source manner to anyone who wishes to use it.

An open textbook is, in many ways, the same as a traditionally published textbook, at least in terms of being written by experts in their field, according to Mary Burgess, director of open education with BCcampus, the organization tasked with the creation of 40 open textbooks for adoption within B.C. institutions.

The most important difference between traditional textbooks and open textbooks, however, is around their licensing. Open textbooks are licensed in a way that allow faculty to adjust and adapt them to make them more appropriate for their students’ learning context. Burgess used the example of instructors replacing American references or case studies with Canadian ones to better suit their desired learning outcomes and make the content more relevant to their students.

The best aspect of open textbooks? They’re free.

They’re created as digital resources (allowing for ease of editing by those who wish to use them), though they can obviously printed after their creation for those who still like physical copies of their learning material. Printing of an open textbook is done for students “on demand” and “at cost,” meaning, “we’re talking about a 300-page textbook costing something like $11,” according to Burgess.

“Students are accustomed to spending $200 or more for a physics textbook, for example,” Burgess said, “and we hear lots of cases of students enrolling in a course and finding out how much the textbook is, and dropping that course because of it, or not buying the textbook at all, so then they’re short the readings that they need to succeed in the course. It’s definitely a huge problem.”

“This is really all about improving access to higher education and improving students’ success within that context.”

So why are you still paying hundreds of dollars for textbooks?

TRU associate dean of arts Ron McGivern sees textbook expense as one of the major barriers to cross in facilitating student success.

McGivern cites a recent TRU study on student retention that broke the numbers down according to the financial support they received. The study, unsurprisingly, concluded that funding availability was a major contributor to people not returning or continuing with school.

He also recently performed a little (self-admittedly non-scientific) study of his own, where he “did a wander through the bookstore,” and collected data on the cost of a large selection of required material for various arts courses.

“It averaged out to about $180 per course, and if a student is taking four or five courses, that’s next semester’s tuition,” he said, adding, “That is one little fact that just hammers at me all the time.”

What’s hammering at him isn’t just the financial cost, or the retention issues that arise through financial stresses, though, it’s that he wants to see his students succeed.

“A student working part-time one semester to be able to afford to pay for the next semester … that work is taking them away from their studies,” he said. “That work, in order for them to be able to afford those damn textbooks, is also costing them the difference between a C and a B or a B and an A.”

McGivern has also noticed the gouging by publishers that students assume is happening when they are told to buy the most recent edition of a text and are wondering what was wrong with the previous edition. You know, the one that they could save money on by buying used.

He once received the seventh edition of a sociology text from a publisher, “and I happened to have all six previous editions on my bookshelf,” he said, so he performed another little independent study. He went through all the editions and came to the following conclusion:

“Other than the glossy photos and the cool graphs and some updating of the data sources, the first version wasn’t too much different from the seventh version,” he said.

If the course were built around an open textbook, however, not only would the material have been free from the start, but the changes made to the text—that under the traditional publishing model would have necessitated a new edition— would instead be a “running revision,” continually updated by those who use it.

“It would be a living document,” McGivern said. “Some new data comes out? You plug it in. There it is. It’s done.”

Obstacles and opportunities

One of the main reasons open textbooks haven’t been widely implemented yet, according to McGivern, is simply that it takes time for institutions to adapt to change.

“As with everything,” he said, “it takes a bit of time to seep its way into the system.”

There are also concerns about the quality of the texts being produced. Since it’s still a new concept, instructors are wary to jump on board.

“A lot of the concerns I get from faculty are things like, ‘Are they peer reviewed?’” McGivern said.

McGivern and Burgess both claim that open textbooks are diligently peer reviewed, however, so there’s no legitimate worry there, and are created in such a way that the individual professors or faculties themselves then adapt them to their needs, so in adopting the use of them, an institution becomes part of the vetting process, as well.

Another issue is that, as McGivern said, “We have a long-standing culture built up that’s based on a relationship with—if not a dependency on—publishers.”

“The textbook itself is only a small part of it. [Publishers] offer study guides, test banks, video resources, class management platforms…it’s a package deal. And we’ve gotten quite used to that. There’s a bit of complacency here. When you order the textbook, you get all this extra material, and it’s become an accepted norm now.”

He thinks that can change, however.

“Are they more work? Well, yes they are at first, for a faculty member. Yeah, you might have to sit down and, if you want to do multiple-choice exams, actually write out the questions. I’ve done it. It’s a bag of work. But so be it!”

“If there are things we can do [as faculty] to help our students stay engaged in their studies, we should be doing it,” he said. “I want our students engaged, and I want them focused, and if part of the problem is textbook cost, and we can respond to that through open textbooks, we have an obligation to do that.”

And McGivern sees the opportunity presented in open textbooks as far outweighing the obstacles.

“I actually see open textbooks for a university or department or discipline to really focus on what it is they’re teaching. To create instructional materials, a pedagogy, that suits where that department is going within that institution,” he said.

In other words, it’s a chance for an institution to take charge of its own teaching individuality, according to McGivern. “It’s an opportunity to create top-notch curriculum. To develop curriculum that has an identity. It’s an opportunity for TRU to put its stamp on something as a leader.”

“Can you imagine if all the sociologists in a department or all the psychologists sat down and said, ‘alright, we’re going to take an existing open text and we’re going to sit down and make it ours’? That’s an incredible opportunity,” he said.

And it’s happening. They’re coming, albeit slowly.

Open Learning is currently engaged in redesigning a few courses in order to “wrap them around,” open textbooks, as McGivern put it, including Introductory Sociology, Research Methods in psychology and Pre-Confederation History.

Susan Buis used one for a lower-level English course she taught this summer.

McGivern himself has pulled together enough open-source resources to create a lesson plan for his upper-level Sociology Research Methods course this winter—for which there is no open textbook produced—so that his students will not be required to purchase any reference material or texts.

“Yeah, I had to do some up front work, but I’m going to be doing this course without textbooks. The previous time I did the course, I think the textbook was $110,” he said.

What can you do to help?

“The biggest barrier is that [professors] just don’t know about it,” Burgess said. “We’ve done a ton of outreach to a whole bunch of different faculty groups, but we have thousands and thousands of faculty in this province, and so we have to find other ways of getting that information out there. Students are one of the ways that that’s happening.”

Meaning you, as a student, need to be part of the discussion if you want to see this change happen more quickly.

“Having this mobilized force of people who can go to their professors and say, ‘My friend is taking a sociology course and using an open textbook, how come you’re not using it?’ I think that’s a really good way of building awareness,” she said.

And if you’re worried about your professor getting mad at you, and thinking you’re trying to tell them how to do their job, McGivern said that’s not a concern you should consider.

“Students have every right to ask their instructors if open textbooks are offered in a course,” he said. “We are in an academic setting, and everything has to be transparent and defendable,” he said, pointing out that a professor may have a defensible position for not making use of open resources.

“It could be there are no open resources out there to develop an open text. It might be a specialized course. Probably the majority of courses at TRU will not go the route of open texts. [The information] is just not out there, yet.”

“But I can assure you,” he added, “for the introductory courses…the resources are out there,” and it’s just a matter of time, until they’re the standard being used, so we should be getting on this train now, and stop wasting our money.