A new course of action: Open textbooks

By Christy Wolyniak

With textbook costs on the rise, students search for alternatives without sacrificing the quality of their higher education.

Last fall the WashPIRG Foundation conducted a survey of 2,093 students from 150 different campuses across the country, including 87 responses from University of Washington, Seattle, and Evergreen State College. Released on January 27, 2014, “Fixing the Broken Textbooks Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives” highlighted their findings.

“We found that high textbook costs deter students from classes. In fact, 48 percent of students reported that textbook prices affected how many classes they took.  Students should be focused on taking the classes they need to earn their degree, not kept out because they have to choose between a textbook and rent,” said U.S. PIRG’s Higher Education Associate and report author, Ethan Senack.

The team discovered that 65 percent of students decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive; 94 percent of these students were concerned that doing so would hurt their grade in a course.
According to WashPIRG, open textbooks are the answer students have been waiting, and saving for.

Though online trends such as e-textbooks and used book rentals might temporarily lighten the burden on students’ wallets, the traditional marketplace dictates the prices of these books based upon the original textbook price, while online sources have limited availability and printing restrictions.

According to the WashPIRG report, “82 percent of survey respondents said they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook were free online and a hard copy was optional, which is exactly how open textbooks work.”

Open textbooks are available to students free online with no printing limitations – the option for a hard copy runs a whopping $20-40 dollars on average. Utilization of these materials would result in an estimated 6 million in student savings in one year according to the study.

Similar to traditional textbooks, open textbooks are faculty-written and peer-reviewed, but published under an open copyright license that allows free access to students.

“There is a tremendous potential to not only improve learning, but to save students up to $100 per course, per semester. Textbooks are the largest out of pocket expense. Students can get loans for tuition and room and board, but for students and families struggling to afford books, this can be a huge barrier. Knowledge should be freely available and accessible to everyone. Open textbooks can facilitate that,” said Senack.

Senack also notes that students will not able to change the original material of an open textbook; only professors will have the ability to customize the content for their teaching purposes.

“It’s not the faculty’s job to save students money on textbooks. Their job is to teach students to the best of their ability. Though they might try to save them money, if a professor feels that a traditional textbook is most suitable, then the faculty member will make that choice. The faculty members are driving the boat here,” said University Bookstore’s Human Resources Director, Lara Konick.

“We support the faculty in their right to choose whatever’s best for their class. All faculty want high quality materials, and there is enough out there that are high quality and classroom ready. There is no significant difference in quality,” said Senack of open source material versus those in traditional markets.

Ballard’s Secret Garden Books owner, Christy MacDonald, said she supports open textbooks, though these options are currently not available for them to provide.

“I see no reason not to support it, but it is up to the professor. Students want to get their value out of their tuition and the textbook is just a part of that,” said MacDonald.

The amount students are spending on their course material topped $1,200 according to the College Board, though the report notes that spending on books has risen more slowly over the past 5 years due to the increase in rental and used book options.

“If new formats are developed, we will look to offer those as well,” said University Bookstore CEO, Louise Little during a recent WashPIRG press conference at the University of Washington. “We are happy to join the search to keep prices down and provide options. One of the things that we keep going back to is our effort to make textbooks affordable.”

Still in its early stages, open course material carries with it a learning curve as campuses search for funding.
“One challenge is that it takes a huge amount of effort, research, and time away from the classroom to write a textbook. With open course materials, we have to find someone willing to do that hard work and not be paid for it. There might not be enough incentive for them to provide the level of material that would be comparable to a current textbook if some sort of compensation is not provided for faculty,” mentioned Konick.

“We know it takes a lot of work to write a textbook, and we don’t expect faculty to do it for free. There are companies working to build sustainable business models around open textbooks, and in the meantime there are generous private, state, and campus-level grant programs that can give faculty the resources they need,” said Senack.

University of Minnesota Professor Irene Duranczyk recently spoke with Senack in a press call on how open textbooks influenced her teaching methods.

“I assign textbooks to support student learning . . . information that students will need to read to keep up with lecture materials, complete homework assignments, and study for major projects and exams. The new report released by U.S. PIRG shows prices are keeping students from purchasing all of their required textbooks, and that’s a serious problem.”

Duranczyk began using open textbooks in the fall of 2012 and was pleased with the results.
“Student feedback on the open textbook was very positive. The material was high quality, with featured links to videos, applets, and definitions of key terms. I was even able to customize the textbook to better complement the way I engage my class with statistics. More than three quarters of the students used the textbook and learning resources online and didn't pay a dime,” said Duranczyk.

The University of Minnesota began their own Open Textbook Library, with 140 open textbooks available to faculty and students. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges is in the process of building an open course library for 81 of the system’s largest courses, while Rice University began OpenStaxCollege.org: a user-friendly destination for open textbooks.

“We’re working on getting research to show the impact of open textbooks on grades and performance, but we won't have that for a while,” said WashPIRG Intern, Charles Woldorff.

Other campuses diving into the open movement include University of Maryland, Tacoma Community College, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and MIT.

For more information, visit http://washpirgfoundation.org/reports/waf/fixing-broken-textbook-market.

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