Op-Ed

The University of Saskatchewan has seen an increase in the use of open textbooks. Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.

Open course materials maintain quality while lowering student costs

Recently, the University of Saskatchewan reported an increase in the use of free, “open” textbooks by its students.

This change cut across faculties, affecting 2,700 students in 20 classes, and saving an estimated total of $275,000.

That’s a nice aggregate number, but the individual benefits it can offer students is even more promising—and it’s something the University of Ottawa must consider more seriously.

But what exactly is an open textbook? Open textbooks are open sourced, meaning nobody makes royalties off them. And they’re often online, meaning there’s no cost associated with printing. In essence, they’re free textbooks.

Shouldn’t we be suspicious of free, online course materials?

Apparently not. Heather Ross, an education developer at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, told the University of Saskatchewan that the quality of these open textbooks is often comparable to regular textbooks.

Besides, student’s won’t be finding just any textbook online. The professors will vet these resources and assign a certain one to the students.

Why does this fall on the university? Well, because they hire the teachers, run the bookstore, and set academic guidelines. In this light, a policy on behalf of the university to widen the scope of open textbooks could go a long way to correcting this dynamic.

This is not to say that the university should mandate that all classes must use open textbooks, as that would be untenable at this point. However, there are concrete steps that can be taken.

First, the university can record how many classes use open textbooks each semester, and how many students are reached, like the University of Saskatchewan has done. With solid numbers in hand, the university could make more specific policies. As the saying goes, “what gets measured, gets managed.”

The university should also examine which courses contain the most students, especially if there are acceptable open textbooks for those courses, or if such textbooks could be created. In faculties like science and engineering, first-year students are hit with textbooks that cost hundreds of dollars each—which can quickly add up to huge sums.

Even a simple acknowledgement from the university of the usefulness of open textbooks would give professors more credibility when assigning such resources.

What about more specific classes that are less likely to have open access books made about them? The university is actually already taking steps that can help with this. The University of Ottawa Press has been expanding its Open Access program, where books published by the press are made available for free online to students. By expanding this program, the university could make more academic subjects, even the more obscure ones, available to students for free.

The U of O can also use its position as a large Ontario university to lobby the provincial government to help provide open textbooks. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Advanced Education created the Open Textbook Project in 2012 to make more open textbooks available to students, so why not advocate for a similar project in Ontario?

The university is on the right track to providing more open access textbooks to students, but more needs to be done. By making policies to measure and improve open textbook use on campus, and encouraging the government to do the same, the university can make a big difference in the lives—and wallets—of students.