Open-source textbooks

Op-eds Opinions

This is the second instalment about the practicality of open source texts. Last week, Robertson addressed the irony of offering winners of a sustainability contest a UVic Bookstore gift card. This week, she discusses the issue of affordability and practicality of open source texts.   

At first glance, the advantages of open textbooks appear obvious, perhaps most significantly in terms of savings for students.  In the past 15 years, the price of textbooks has increased three times more than other goods have due to inflation. This represents a significant financial burden for many students. Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, an advocate of open-source textbooks at Thompson Rivers University reports that more than 60 per cent of students have at some point decided against purchasing a textbook due to high costs.

So why are professors continuing to assign expensive textbooks when institutions such as Thompson Rivers University and the Justice Institute of B.C. are making the switch to open source? I decided to take that question to Dr. Bruce Ravelli, who teaches Introductory Sociology to hundreds of UVic students each year. And the assigned textbook? It’s one he’s authored himself.

Ravelli said that his greatest concern with open-source textbooks is the defensiveness he is made to feel about a pedagogical tool he has worked hard to create. He is deeply concerned that professors will be pressured to use open-source texts, whose quality may not measure up to what can be expected of a text published with an academic publisher.

Unlike the open model of knowledge production used by Wikipedia, open-source textbooks are typically contracted products authored by a small group of individuals. The books currently being produced for B.C. campuses have largely been edited and adapted from existing open-source libraries such as OpenStax out of Rice University in Houston. In some subject areas, where no suitable open source book is available, authors are paid from $10 000 to $40 000 to produce a new open-source text.  A final means by which open-source textbooks are being produced for B.C. campuses is the “booksprint”—a hack-a-thon model of textbook production.

The first of these occurred in June of this year when a small group of geography instructors from across B.C. joined with a designer, programmer, and project managers at the University of British Columbia to create an introductory geography textbook in just four days. That’s right: 12 contributors, 52 hours, 48 420 words. That doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success to me.

While the impetus for the open source project in B.C. was to increase access to educational material, I have to ask: what quality of education can be provided with a textbook slapped together in a matter of days? In our interview, Dr. Ravelli conveyed that his own textbook (co-authored with Dr. Michelle Webber) took 18 months of full-time work to produce. I began to understand Dr. Ravelli’s concern regarding the pressure on instructors to adopt open-source textbooks; “In the pursuit for the free,” he asks, “what might we be giving up?”

But does open source necessarily mean lower quality? UVic sociology professor Dr. Bill Little recently spent eight months editing an American open-source introductory sociology text for use in Canadian classrooms. He recognizes many substantial benefits to using open source texts beyond simple affordability. Unlike traditional textbooks, open-source texts can be modified to better suit the needs of the instructor and students, and can be updated with greater ease and frequency than traditional texts.

When I asked Dr. Little if he would choose an open source text instead of the gold standard of published texts, he chuckled and replied, “Well that’s an interesting question. It’s funny; I probably would, because I think I could make it work”. Of course, Little has worked with this text for three quarters of a year, and so, as he suggested, “it’s set up in a way that represents my way of looking at things.” He noted that while he tries to be conscious of the cost of textbooks, his key priority is determining whether the book is useful or not.

However, there typically exists just a single approved open-source text available to instructors in most subjects. Limiting the choice of course materials so drastically does not sound like increased access to me. Ultimately, Dr. Little suggests that each professor should feel free to choose whichever textbook they deem most appropriate. He emphasizes that while he hopes that professors would at least look at available open-source materials, it would be a disaster to impose a book on an instructor. Reflecting the concerns of Ravelli, Little concluded our interview by stating that “there should be no pressure from anybody to choose an open source book over another [textbook]”.

Perhaps open-source textbooks, at least as they are currently produced, do not represent the panacea I first thought they might be. While the exorbitant cost of textbooks, the endless cycle of consumption, and the excessive waste produced by new editions screams for more sustainable alternatives, perhaps the true cost of open source is more than we’re willing to pay.