The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

U of S commits to open textbook program

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Cheaper textbooks are on the horizon for University of Saskatchewan students, as the governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia have agreed to establish an open-textbook program.

On March 12, Paul Merriman, the Member of Legislative Assembly for Saskatoon-Sutherland, called U of S Students’ Union President Max FineDay to tell him that the Government of Saskatchewan had agreed to the establishment of an open-textbook program. FineDay announced the provincial government’s intention at the March 13 University Students’ Council meeting.

“We have a huge opportunity to change the way we do knowledge distribution at the university and to save students here at the university a lot of money, and I think that’s something worthwhile,” FineDay said.

Open-textbooks are published under an open copyright license and can be distributed online to students for use on their computers or mobile devices. If students wish to get a physical copy of the textbook, they can have it printed for a small fee at the campus bookstore.

FineDay said there is currently no timetable for implementing the program as it is still in the preliminary stages.

“It’s not going to be one sweeping date. I think it’s going to be incremental over time,” FineDay said.

The governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. have signed a memorandum of understanding to create an open-textbook program in which open educational resources would be shared between the provinces.

Several B.C. schools including the University of British Columbia and Thompson Rivers University already participate in an open educational resources sharing program

Current textbooks will not be available under an open license. Instead, new textbooks would have to be developed as part of the program. In B.C. open-textbooks have been developed only for the most popular courses. FineDay said this plan is something that he’d be looking to emulate at the U of S.

“We have to be careful that we’re not doing things for a 10 person seminar. We want to get the most value for students,” FineDay said.

Another concern is maintaining the quality of work that established publishers can provide.

“We have to make sure the textbook is worthy. We’re a U15 university, so we have to make sure its up to our standards,” FineDay said. “But we have some recognized leaders in biology, in sociology, in psychology, native studies and other fields who can write textbooks if we partner those profs and grad students up.”

The U of S, the University of Alberta, UBC and a number of regional colleges in B.C. have all agreed to take part in the new open-textbook program. The University of Regina and the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology have also indicated an interest in joining the program.

Establishing an open-textbook program was one of the main points for FineDay’s platform during USSU elections in March 2013. In November 2013, the USSU hosted “Be Book Smart” week, where a petition calling on the Government of Saskatchewan to create an open-textbook program garnered over 1,300 signatures from students. The petition was delivered to Merriman, who supported the idea of the program.

Since then, the campaign continued moving into the halls of government and has taken place behind closed doors.

“It was a lot of dialogue with both government and opposition, lot of it was talking with the university — who have also endorsed this plan — and a lot of it was talking with faculty,” FineDay said.

Getting support from the university’s administration and faculty provided an additional challenge. While some in administration, such as Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning Patti McDougall, backed the campaign all along, others — such as U of S President Ilene Busch-Vishniac— only recently threw their support behind the program.

FineDay said he encountered the most resistance from the university’s professors.

“A lot of [the backlash] is coming from professors who are a little bit afraid of change or are not really comfortable,” FineDay said. “Maybe they have a good relationship with publishers or they use colleagues’ textbooks. A lot of professors are maybe not very familiar with the idea of open education.”

FineDay said that implementing the program will depend largely on convincing faculty of the idea’s merit. He said that he hopes faculty will get behind the idea if they have the opportunity to learn about it.

“We have some faculty interested, but we need to push it more. We need faculty to be the champions of this idea for it to really work.”

Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor

  • john johnson

    Good news. A more open education system is the future

  • Karla

    I’d like to know more about the specific reasons why professors were reluctant. Open textbooks are a great idea but the article didn’t mention that putting together and maintaining a “worthy” one could easily be a full-time job in and of itself. It isn’t the sort of thing one can just jot off. The article gives the impression that professors are reluctant to buy in because they are afraid of change and stuck in their ways. However, there was no mention in the article of allowing dedicated hours during the working day for such a project, or offering any kind of logistical support, and certainly not any compensation. Maybe these things are part of the initiative, but it isn’t clear from the article. If it isn’t clear, either, to the people who are being asked to sign over the next year of evenings and weekends for the greater good, then it shouldn’t be surprising that some are reluctant.

  • then why we still go monkeys?

    The problem isn’t the cost of textbooks. Rather, it is the mandatory online homework that certain classes require. A code to access online homework is often as expensive as a new textbook itself. Frankly, there are many textbooks, old and new, that would work fine to supplement many classes. Without the necessity of purchasing an access code, many students could get away with using these textbooks instead of buying new, but they don’t because purchasing access to the online homework separately is nearly as expensive as purchasing a new textbook that comes with the code.

    The reluctance of professors to support open textbooks is probably because many of them rely on publisher powerpoints, test banks, and online graded homework. These resources save them a lot of time even though their use often results in brain dead multiple choice questions, dull lectures where the prof reads from slides he or she is unfamiliar with, and annoying homework questions that are slightly modified versions of problems already in the textbook.

    The world doesn’t need another introductory calculus, physics, or psychology textbook. Look at the past 4 editions of Stewart’s Calculus and try to spot the changes besides a superficial re-ordering or additional homework problems. You aren’t going to find any. Then look on ebay or amazon and notice that the last edition of his text costs between 0 and 20 dollars. Yet people still buy the newest edition because it comes with an online homework code, and purchasing that code separately is nearly as expensive as a new textbook itself. More power to James Stewart – he lives in a 30 million dollar home complete with a concert hall – but it’s a ripoff.

    Maybe someone more informed can point out how I am wrong and why I should be more optimistic about this program.

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