By Sandi Halimuddin
University students — who today face tuition increases and budget cuts — spend about $1,200 per year on textbooks, according to the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).
Earlier this month, the Washington State Open Course Library (OCL) introduced 42 courses worth of ready-to-use, adaptable online material for university faculty. The OCL, which is supported by a $1.2 million grant from the Washington Legislature, aims to reduce the financial burden of textbook costs for university students through the online format.
Monique Luu, a University of Washington (UW) senior, spends about $180 per quarter on textbooks. She lamented that course materials at the university-affiliated bookstore are overpriced compared with online sources such as ULoop or Amazon.
“Tuition is already so expensive and I would like to see textbooks offered at a cheaper price,” said Luu, an economics major.
Professors who take advantage of the Open Educational Resources (OER), which refers to the textbooks, course activities, readings and assessments available on OCL, give students the option of paying less than $30 per course on textbooks.
“[The OCL] helps faculty find new ways and resources for teaching and helps students with free or very inexpensive options [for course materials],” said Tom Caswell, an Open Education Policy associate and project lead.
Steve Johnson, Associate Professor of Math at Seattle Pacific University, explained that with math courses, the turnover for textbooks is fairly high. Johnson acknowledged that using new, updated course material every three years could incur a high cost.
“I like the idea of open access and I would like to see [the OCL] succeed … to encourage development and help students,” said Johnson.
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who has been the major proponent of OCL, is enthusiastic about breaking what he calls the commercial monopoly of the textbook industry, which he believes hurts students.
According to Carlyle, textbooks are a $9 billion industry, with 76 percent of textbook dollars going back to the publisher and author.
“[It’s time to] break the monopoly of old-style thinking in higher education culture … and say we’re going to do better,” Carlyle said.
When asked about the ramifications on textbook publishers, Caswell countered that the OCL has strong alliances with certain textbook publishers. The OER is made up of a variety of existing textbook material from publishers who can provide such resources at the price point of $30 per course.
“Publishers are starting to see that they need to look at new models for staying viable,” said Caswell. “We are both interested in finding a solution that works.”
In addition to cutting costs, the OCL’s digitized format increases access to educational material by bypassing the copyright through an open license. Because of its legal license to share creative work, the OCL can be accessed in any country at any time.
“As a member of the Internet generation, being able to access information as soon as possible is a high priority,” said UW senior Nate Smith. An English major, Smith emphasized the convenience of weightless information that could be accessed with a tool as small as an iPhone. “Paper-based information is becoming obsolete and most people like the digitized format,” he said.
Added Carlyle: “[The OCL] is about the power of the Internet, the power of textbooks and sharing, and the power of coordinating and collaboration.”
Carlyle expressed his hope that the “UW embraces Open Education Resources as religion and realizes the profound impact at a high quality learning capacity.”
With the success and public support of the OCL thus far, there are already 81 projected courses to be added for next year. In order to reach the greatest number of students, the OER includes predominantly general education courses, which are common prerequisites such as English 101 and basic math.
“If we can build on this, as of last year [these courses] represented 410,000 enrollment,” said Caswell. “But ultimately, [the reach of OER] depends on the faculty.” He suggested that students ask their instructors to consider using OER as part of the course material. He also suggested that university students contact their state legislators and urge them to support open sharing.
“This is an example of where the state Legislature has made a smart investment,” Caswell said. “[The state] put $750,000 towards Open Course Library even during a time of cuts.”
Carlyle, who lives in Queen Anne, encouraged students to take the initiative to coordinate with the student government, faculty and administration to utilize open resources instead of participating in what he called a commercial textbook monopoly.
“Students spend an enormous amount of time on adverse [effects] of tuition increase and a fraction of time learning of alternative resources of decreasing textbook costs,” Carlyle said. “I would like to challenge students to act [for] the incentive to their own pocketbooks.”