Open source textbooks can ease students’ financial strains

As we settle into the new semester, students are getting ready for their new classes – including purchasing textbooks. And as they are shopping for textbooks, students are reminded of just how pricey they are.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo Shwetha Srinivasan

Open textbooks would be an alternative to physical textbooks that are much less expensive or even free. Open textbooks are online textbooks licensed through an open copyright license and posted online by authors.

Rutgers University is one of the many higher education institutions that has switched to an open textbook system in order to address the problem of textbook costs. Last semester, Rutgers launched its Open and Affordable Textbook Project, which is a grant program that offers $1,000 to faculty and academic departments that replace traditional textbooks with a free or low-cost open books. This program can potentially save all students across the university $500,000 in one year.

To reduce textbook costs for students, GW should implement an incentive program for professors that would benefit students. A move toward low cost textbooks can have significant impacts on student performance because reducing costs and increasing access to textbooks can eliminate obstacles in achieving academic success.

Cartoon by Grace Lee

The program not only lowers costs for students but also allows professors to have a greater degree of control in structuring their courses. Through the use of open textbooks, professors can modify course materials to suit their instructional needs. Open textbooks have nonrestrictive licenses that allow users to adapt and revise material, so if a professor wants to expand on a current course topic or introduce a new topic, the professor can modify the existing open textbook.

Other universities have slightly different models that GW could consider copying. The University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library and the State of Washington’s Open Course Library have open source programs that are available to students. Both programs have websites that function as open textbook libraries with free books accessible to students, even those from other universities. The open books cover a wide range of subjects from humanities and social sciences to computer science to foreign languages. Since open textbooks are available to the public and can be modified, GW professors can look at current open textbooks into the exisiting public domain and collaborate to create course materials that reflect content or subject topics covered in GW classes.

Aside from just being a better option than physical textbooks, open textbooks provide an alternative to digital textbooks, too. Digital textbooks are often considered alternatives to traditional textbooks, but they are often just as expensive. Many courses require students to purchase a one-time digital access code that usually expires in 180 days. In my personal experience, most of my classes have used access codes as portals for weekly online quizzes or homework assignments. But the use of the digital access codes isn’t commensurate with their cost. Professors should instead create innovative ways to incorporate open source textbooks and reduce student spending on course materials.

Digital access codes also contribute to the overall issue of rising textbook costs. The average cost of a one-time access code at a campus bookstore is $100, according to The New York Times. And textbook prices in general have become so expensive that a survey conducted by the United States Public Interest Research Group has reported that 65 percent of students chose not to buy a textbook because it was too costly and 94 percent worried that this would affect their grades. Aside from cost differences, open textbooks don’t come with expiration dates and can be revised by faculty to suit the needs of a particular course.

Open source textbooks could be a successful way to address both sources of high textbook costs – traditional textbooks and digital access codes. Administering a pilot program would give GW officials the opportunity to access how open textbooks can increase access and affordability.

Shwetha Srinivasan, a junior double-majoring in international affairs and economics, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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