The end of textbooks

Oh hai didn't see u thar
Open textbooks aim to make education accessible for everyone, regardless of their financial status.

How much did you spend on textbooks this semester?

You don’t have to answer that. We all know that feeling of disappointment that comes with shelling out more than $100 on a textbook you’ll probably never use again. For decades, academic publishers and university bookstores have charged students hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for textbooks, adding to already high tuition costs and ballooning student debt in Canada. For the most part, post-secondary students are encouraged to accept this as a hard truth of university life: if you want to go to school, you’ll have to pay.

It’s this dominant ideology of the university as a business — and knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold — that the open education movement sets out to challenge. Releasing for free hundreds of textbooks, course materials, primary sources and other learning resources digitally under creative commons licenses, educators and experts across the country are fighting to make education a resource that’s open and available to everyone — teachers and students alike.

For students looking for a cheaper alternative and faculty looking for a more teachable format, open textbooks are a breath of fresh air.

There are dozens of organizations creating and promoting open textbooks across the world; most are concentrated in the United States, where pushback against rising textbook costs and the monopolization of markets has inspired instructors to go rogue. In Canada, the biggest promoter of open textbooks is right here in British Columbia. BC Campus, a publicly funded organization based out of Vancouver, is compiling a collection of free and readily available open textbooks designed for classrooms in BC and across Canada.

But what would a campus using open textbooks look like? Here at SFU, students and faculty across disciplines are working with BC Campus and other organizations to create and promote these new teaching materials, tailor-made for our school — and if they succeed, it could mean big changes to the way you’re earning your degree.

A Broken System

Walk into the SFU Bookstore in the Maggie Benston Centre. Go on, I’ll wait. Now browse a few of the titles on sale on the store’s first floor. Have you ever wondered why those textbooks cost as much as they do?

In Canada, textbook publishers — behemoths such as Pearson, Nelson, and Oxford University Press — have a monopoly on the production and distribution of peer-reviewed textbooks at Canadian universities. The reason they’re able to set their prices so high is because our Copyright Act protects them in doing so. When publishing non-Canadian course material, publishers are able to prohibit others from doing the same, and they’re allowed to tack on an extra 10 to 15 per cent on the import tax.

This leads to the sort of pricing we’re used to seeing for introductory course materials in fields such as physics, psychology, and biology. On average, students in Canada spend $500–1,000 every year on textbooks and courseware; in the United States, this number rises to $700–1,200. It hasn’t always been this bad — in the US, for instance, textbook costs have risen 812 per cent since 1978, and at a much higher rate than tuition costs — or inflation, for that matter.

Where’s that money going, you might ask? Well, most is going directly into the pockets of publishers — 80 per cent of the average textbook’s cost goes to its publisher, to cover the costs of distribution, production, and creation. Only a fraction of the remaining cost goes towards SFU and its bookstore, which lost $418,000 in the last fiscal year, according to Leah Bjornson’s report for The Peak this past May.

Apart from overcharging students and faculty alike, publishers also do their best to ensure that students have a tough time avoiding the sticker price. New editions for old textbooks are released every few years, often with only minor changes to the fine print. And good luck trying to save by buying books internationally and transporting them back to Canada; under our current copyright law, this is illegal.

“We’re really hoping that, through this campaign, professors are going to start thinking about how much money students are spending.”

As a result, professors are often forced to assign expensive textbooks for courses that only refer to a few chapters — and given that students are forced to buy whatever textbooks instructors assign, many teachers will opt for the more expensive choices in order to get the highest quality content.

So what choice do students have? As it turns out, there are ways to get around the rising cost of textbooks, though we often have to work for them.

One choice many students make is simply not to buy textbooks at all; in fact, a study from the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund showed that 65 per cent of all post-secondary students had taken at least one course without buying the textbook, with full knowledge this might hurt their grade. About half of students went even further, deciding which courses to take depending on whether or not the textbooks and course materials were affordable.

At SFU, many students bypass the SFU Bookstore by joining a Facebook group called the SFU Textbook Trade Centre. I’m a member, and if you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you are, too. As of this article’s publication, the group counts 17,226 students as members, and by the time you’re reading this, that number will have grown. That’s over half of SFU’s entire student population trading and exchanging courseware, all in an attempt to avoid paying exorbitant fees for materials which, relatively, cost pennies to make.

Other means of saving on textbooks have put our bookstore in a financial slump. In an article for The Peak in February of this year, Melissa Roach exposed the decline in sales that has occurred over the past few years: only 67 per cent of SFU students are actually buying textbooks, and of those, only 68 are actually going to the bookstore — others are using resources such as Facebook, Craigslist, Amazon, Books2go, or even illegal downloading sites such as The Pirate Bay.

Despite book publishers’ stranglehold on the textbook market, students are increasingly finding new ways to get learning material without breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be this difficult. For students looking for a cheaper alternative and faculty looking for a more teachable format, open textbooks are a breath of fresh air.

Education for All

Open content is still a fairly young concept. It was introduced in 1998 by David Wiley, a professor and essayist and longtime advocate for open education resources (OERs). Apart from educational materials, open content activists have also helped to distribute health care information, literary resources, and other creative content across the web and into the hands of those who may not have had access to these materials otherwise.

For a resource to qualify as ‘open,’ it has to fit all five of Wiley’s criteria: it must be retainable, so that users can own, make, and control copies; reusable, so that content can be used in all manner of ways; revisable, so that educators and students can change and update material; remixable, so that different content can be combined to make something new; and redistributable, so that others can gain access to the content.

These pillars — the five Rs, as they’re known to OER activists — are the backbone of the open education movement. For those who’ve made it their goal to democratize and make available learning material for the public, open textbooks must fulfil all five of these requirements.

Enter Clint Lalonde, one of the education technologists for BC Campus and manager of the organization’s Open Education division, whose goal it is to make OERs available at all of BC’s universities and colleges. Open Education’s latest and most ambitious undertaking is the Open Textbook Project — the first of its kind in Canada.

“[The project] started in October of 2012,” Lalonde says. “Since then, it’s expanded to Alberta and Saskatchewan, and we’ve been working closely with those provinces to make open textbooks happen in their jurisdictions as well.”

“[Open textbooks] actually have measurable implications for learning within courses.”

To date, the project has compiled 57 different textbooks from 35 different subject areas. Of those, 20 have been peer reviewed, and several professors at SFU have already begun using the texts in their classrooms; editing and shaping the content as they see fit, and saving students hundreds of dollars in textbook fees. “With an open textbook, faculty can customize even further — to change some of the stats in the textbook, or some of the examples in the textbook — and really make them relevant to the course,” says Lalonde.

“Because they can do that, it means better learning outcomes for the students.”

The project is split into three phases. The first is to review existing open textbooks, and ensure their quality and accuracy; the second is to adapt open textbooks and tweak them to fit into specific classrooms; and the third is to create new open textbooks from scratch. Though the latter seems ambitious, Lalonde is optimistic — he shares with me a story of working with several other educators (including two from SFU) to draft an introductory geography textbook in four days. “Four long days,” he says.

For faculty building these textbooks from the ground up, there’s no barrier between course materials and the knowledge they’re trying to impart to students. No more skipped chapters or stale information — each text is tailor-made for the course it accompanies.

Lalonde also mentions that the open textbooks created and approved for the project will be available in different formats for students with physical and mental disabilities. “We’re working with an organization in the province [CAPER] that actually does work for students in the province who have disabilities. So, whenever a request comes in, we’re able to translate textbooks into different formats — for example, turning a textbook into an audiobook for students who have visual impairments.”

Given the success of the project, which began less than two years ago, it’s easy to envision a future where paper textbooks and publishers become obsolete. However, it isn’t that simple — many students prefer the experience of using a physical textbook to a digital one, and others don’t have the financial means to buy devices capable of downloading electronic textbooks. For Lalonde, the answer is in partnering with the SFU Bookstore, which offers to print all of BC Campus’ open textbooks on demand for between $20–40 — still a steal compared to your average course material.

“University bookstores are going through some [difficult] times right now, and it’s not only coming from open textbook projects,” he says. “We’ve tried to partner with bookstores as much as we can.” For our own SFU Bookstore, whose earnings in 2014 are projected to be even lower than last year, this might be the best news they’ve had in a while.

Open Education at SFU

Since BC Campus began their program, several institutions across the province have begun to promote the use of open textbooks on their campuses. Kwantlen Polytechnic University, for example, has embraced the project, and encouraged its instructors to adapt their courses for open materials.

Brady Wallace, arts & social sciences representative for the Simon Fraser Student Society, has been an integral part of the SFSS’ push to promote the Open Textbook Project at SFU. “It works perfectly,” he says. “The BC Open Textbook program is something that’s been around since 2012, and we’ve seen success from other universities and institutions in BC — just none of which have been research-based. We’re hoping that SFU can fill that void, and become the first research institution to really take part in the project.”

Along with SFSS president Chardaye Bueckert and several other members of their board of directors, the student society has started a campaign to increase awareness of the program among teachers and faculty, and encourage the administration to spread the word. “The administration has said that they’re interested in the project, and that they’d love to see it happen,” Wallace says.

In order to demonstrate student interest in the project, the SFSS has been petitioning students. You may have seen a signup sheet at The Ladle or the Highland Pub, or on the SFSS website — SFSS representatives even came shuffling into The Peak offices on our production day, urging us to sign on the dotted line.

When I interviewed Wallace last Tuesday, he’d already collected around 1,400 signatures; 4,000 by the end of the month is the goal. In the coming weeks, the SFSS will roll out a social media campaign and promote the project at frosh gatherings and other social events, in the hopes of collecting enough student names by October 1 to bring to the university.

“This campaign is, ultimately, pushing for usage of the open textbooks which are already available online,” Wallace says. “We understand that academic freedom remains with the professor, and we can’t force these textbooks on them, especially if they’re not up to par for an individual instructor. But we’re really hoping that, through this campaign, professors are going to start thinking about how much money students are spending; not just on courseware, but also tuition, and everything like that.

“We want to get profs thinking, ‘How can we make education more accessible to university students?’ We want to be moving in the direction of open source — whether that be, instead of a prof producing a custom textbook, just posting links on Canvas, or using open texts from the library.”

It’s already begun. Educators across BC and elsewhere — like Britta Ricker and Cristina Temenos, the two SFU profs who helped Lalonde build a textbook in four days — are helping make more open textbooks available to the public.

As the SFSS spends the remainder of the month increasing awareness of the OERs available to the staff and students of SFU, BC Campus will continue to work towards providing more open, peer-reviewed content to students across the country. For Lalonde, the move towards open education is obvious, if slow-going — open textbooks are cheaper, more accessible, and customizable enough to never need a shiny new edition or a few extra chapters.

“Ultimately, it goes beyond the economics of open textbooks being a good deal because they’re free; they actually have measurable implications for learning within courses,” Lalonde says. “Students who actually have these resources, strangely enough, do better.”

So say goodbye to that pile of dusty textbooks in your closet; their swan song has finally begun.