Let’s talk about textbooks

Happy Open Education Week! March 5-9 is designated as a week to raise awareness about open education and its worldwide impact on teaching and learning. This is a great time to think about the costs of textbooks and how open textbooks can make education more affordable.

For decades, the price of textbooks has increased at more than three times the rate of inflation. A report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Student PIRGs found that 65% of students have decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive. As students seek affordable ways to purchase used textbooks or share with classmates, textbook publishers have suppressed secondary markets and sharing by publishing frequent new editions, bundling books with additional supplementary materials, and requiring the purchase of online access codes which only work for one student.

This week we are asking Dartmouth students to tell us about how textbook prices affect them. There are two whiteboards in Baker-Berry Library (near the circulation desk) and they pose two questions:

  1. How much money did you spend on textbooks for winter term?
  2. If you hadn’t spent that money on textbooks, what would you have used it for?

Students have responded! They expressed frustration over textbook costs, recommended work-arounds to help other students reduce costs, and were thankful for professors who didn’t require they purchase a textbook. They also told us about what they could do with the money they spent on textbooks if they didn’t have that expense. We saw a wide range of responses including paying rent, buying food, saving, getting a new blanket, paying student loans, buying a plane ticket home, getting a new laptop charger, paying their medical expenses, and spending on fun.

One possible remedy to the problem of rising textbook prices can be found in open educational resources or OERs. SPARC defines OERs as teaching, learning, and research resources released under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OERs can be textbooks, full courses, lesson plans, videos, texts, software, or any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge.

OERs are out there and they are building momentum. You can find high quality open textbooks on sites like OpenStax and OER Commons. Twenty state governments are challenging colleges to save students money by using open textbooks through the #GoOpen initiative. Some states have OER mandates that require institutions to label courses in course catalogs that use free textbooks or OERs. And in September, the Affordable College Textbook Act was introduced in Congress.

I think open textbooks and other open educational resources present an exciting opportunity for Dartmouth. As OER are becoming more common, there are more and more high quality open textbooks available that can be adopted and adapted for Dartmouth courses. I’m interested in courses that have already used OER here and courses that might in the future. And I’m excited by the potential for more Dartmouth faculty and students to become authors of open educational resources and make resources available in areas where nothing open yet exists.

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