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Faculty handed open textbook challenge

August 30, 2016 1:33 P.M.
Alex McLellan of TRUSU launches open textbook campaign Tuesday.
Some of the texts available through the B.C. Open Textbook Project.

Open textbooks in digital format can benefit students with reduced costs and greater flexibility, but creating them can be an enormous challenge for faculty.

That’s why TRU’s student union launched an open textbook campaign Tuesday with dual goals: Saving students $300,000 over the next two semesters while proposing a open textbook fellowship to fund faculty members who create new or adapted open textbooks.

“It’s a pretty simple idea but one that has big potential,” said Alex McLellan, TRUSU’s university governance co-ordinator.

While the potential is great, there are also many obstacles, not the least of which are time and resources for instructors to produce or adapt the texts.

Still, at a time when costs can easily make or break a university education, there is a clear need for more open textbooks, TRUSU believes.

“It’s no secret that students are going through quite a hard time, struggling with the high cost of universities and the crippling student debt that goes along with that,” said Michael Zaitlin, chairman of the TRUSU student caucus, who’s leading the campaign.

Every semester students are confronted with difficult choices, between textbooks that cost $100 to $200 each and the necessities of life, he said.

“For many of students, the checkout line at the book store comes with a challenge, a sort of barrier to us all.”

Students delay purchases, share textbooks with friends, compete for the last single reserved book or simply go without, he said.

“Open textbooks ensure that students can spend more time focusing on their classes rather than dealing with the extra costs,” and offer the flexibility of digital media uses, he added.

The B.C. Open Textbook Project offers books licensed under open copyright and available online for faculty and student use. Online versions are free and print versions are available for a small fee to cover cost of production, significantly reducing student costs.

At the same time, faculty have the flexibility under the licensing to tailor their course material.

Not all courses are created equal, though. Some are well-suited to open textbooks. Political science instructor Derek Cook, who attended Tuesday’s campaign launch, said one of his courses may require up to 10 books per semester. The range of literature is intended to give his students the widest possible exposure. By selecting bestsellers, he manages to keep costs as low as possible, a point he demonstrated by purchasing a $16 coy of The Global Minotaur by Yanis Varoufakis.

Tom Friedman of the TRU Faculty Association said members are apprehensive about the TRUSU campaign because it will create an imbalance. Some course sections will have open textbooks, others won’t, and that puts additional pressure on faculty, he said.

“Sometimes, open textbooks are not the best choice for a particular course or a particular instructor,” he said.

That hasn’t deterred several faculty members from stepping forward to champion the cause, though.

“As a course designer, I’m always interested in looking at a wide range of instructional resources that available to deliver specific content,” said Ken Monroe of Open Learning. 

B.C. Campus, the government program that funds open textbooks, has so far provided 157 volumes for 544 course sections, benefiting 15,000 students provincewide.

“As faculty, the decision to use an open text is based on its ability to convey the content I want,” Monroe said. “It’s good to see more opportunities to use them because it is also nice to be able to save students money.”

McLellan said open textbooks have so far saved TRU students $108,000 over six semesters. They are challenging faculty to triple that sum a third of the time period.

"We are calling on individual professors to leverage their textbook choice to provide students much needed savings and to tailor their materials to the curriculum," Zaitlin said. "And we are also looking to the university to take a leadership role that reflects our unique mandate for open education."

Used political science texts on the shelf at TRU's Bookies book store.


John Belshaw says:
August 31, 2016 10:21pm

R.Dzeakas makes a good point. Take it a step further: many texts -- including complete books -- are available online in e-book format from the TRU Library ... for which the student has already paid!
This is a great issue for the TRUSU to get behind and it's one that's got a lot of traction around BC.


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R Dzeakas says:
August 31, 2016 01:58pm

I hope that the political science profs who assign the books in the photo (Plato's Republic and On Liberty) also make it know to students that these books are in the public domain and can be freely downloaded from the Internet Archive and Project Guttenberg. Being in the public domain and out of copyright, students do not have to spend money to buy these books at all.


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