Replacing textbooks is a bigger change than we might think

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Buying textbooks comes at a high cost for students, but the price of more accessible resources is one we may not be willing to pay yet. 

Open education resources (OER) are educational materials that can be freely accessed, distributed and — in the case of classroom use — reworked to accommodate the needs of the course’s content. Licensed under creative commons, they cost far less than textbooks copyrighted by authors and publishers.  

It’s this open approach that some faculty at UBC are adopting in the hopes to combat the financial burden put on students when buying textbooks.

There’s nothing wrong with the intention for the shift to openly accessible educational materials. In fact, courses that incorporate accessible online materials are a welcome move for most students — many of whom consider forgoing purchasing textbooks that may add up to a couple months’ worth of rent. 

Although professors make a percentage of the profit when students buy their textbooks, students should be paying for course material that also enrich their education, not just make money.   

When planning a course, professors need to be aware that not all their students can equally access the material they’re assigning. If a change is needed, it’s especially in courses where students barely have to read the required textbooks that cost them hundreds. With OER allowing for free access, it seems like an obvious shift. 

The problem, however, may arise when putting it into practice.

Perhaps the largest barrier to OER is the lack of recognition that an original researcher would receive for an open textbook, as opposed to a textbook with a publisher and copyright.  

Academics pursue research to be recognized for their work, leading to further research possibilities. While OER would prioritize accessibility for student success, the lack of acknowledgement for their own research may ironically make success in academia inaccessible or at least elusive for many academics. 

It may be worth exploring how post-doctorate students — who are often students as well as teachers — can step into the world of research if academic journals fail to recognize open texts.  

In addition, entirely replacing the use of copyrighted, referenceable materials with open educational resources isn’t just a matter of teaching approach — it’s a matter of intellectual property. If the move were to be made, it would require a rethink of how we perceive knowledge and its cost.  

Even so, changes to intellectual ownership have been made in the past. Copyright laws have emerged and shifted to suit changing ideas of knowledge, according to the times. 

Perhaps it’s time for that same kind of overhaul again. Perhaps, to lower the price tags of our textbooks, we need to explore how we view who owns information and knowledge.

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