Open textbooks can free us from our woes

By in Opinions

With tuition once again on the rise, university students are dragging their feet to the bookstore to empty their wallets on textbooks, with seemingly no salvation in sight — except maybe the development of an online textbook source.

Standing in a ridiculously long line at the bookstore really makes a person contemplate a solution to the expensive textbook plague — the most common suggestion being, of course, that textbooks should just be free. I mean, we already pay tuition and student fees, so why not?

We all know free textbooks will never happen. The markets are too big; corporations are too greedy. So the next best solution is the open textbooks system, in which textbooks are available to students and instructors through a preferably free online database.

This system is already being used in universities across British Columbia and is gaining momentum at the University of Calgary, among others.

I can already hear the complaints: why does everything have to be on the Internet? Who’s going to put together this database? What about copyright laws?

What about us, as students? The open textbook model would be less expensive than purchasing physical copies of textbooks, more ecologically friendly and just altogether convenient for so many people.

There are already a large number of textbooks available digitally with the purchase of certain access codes — Pearson knows where it’s at — and that stack of old textbooks on your shelf that you can’t seem to sell would no longer be a problem.

There are also these things called open copyright licenses, which means that all copyright holders have to do is select how their text is allowed to be used and boom — a vast digital library of resources available to both students and professors alike is born.

Yes, you heard me: open textbooks would benefit instructors as well. While the possibility of having to restructure a course around a new online textbook sounds annoying, the ability to expand a course’s horizons and include new material with no cost to students has a freeing appeal. Also, those students would be more likely to actually read the assigned text — probably with less bitching about it.

Although a database funded through the University of Saskatchewan is not yet in existence, there’s already a number of prototypes on the market. The BCcampus Open Textbook Project is the closest to home, but there’s also Open Textbook Library and Open Learning Initiative, to name a few.

The U of S is actually using OLI for a first-year biology course, and Eric Micheels, a professor from the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, is using an online textbook for his Agriculture 113 course. It’s about time we made this thing campus-wide and universal.

The USSU opened the conversation with their hashtag campaign, #TextbookBrokeSK, in January with a huge focus on the cash aspect — and rightly so.

I know I’ve mentioned it, but let me reiterate: open textbooks would be way less expensive for us students. Seriously, does anyone actually enjoy dropping obscene amounts of cash on books every semester?

The cost of textbooks in Canada has risen over 800 per cent since our parents went to school, and it probably isn’t going to drop anytime soon.

Reducing this extra expense could make a serious difference in lowering the economic barriers of post-secondary education. It could also help reduce financial stress and lead to improvements in program completion rates as well as student retention rates.

As students, most of us have access to a computer or tablet, making online resources a feasible option. For those who don’t, paper textbooks aren’t going to become extinct. University students have been finding ways to avoid paying full price for textbooks for as long as anyone can remember, and those skills will never die out.

We need to break up with expensive textbooks and start a new, open relationship with something more loving and supportive of us — and of our wallets.