Making textbooks free

Libraries, Humanities

- Lisa Abram

Inba Kehoe poses in front of full bookshelf, smiling brightly.
Inba Kehoe. Credit: UVic Photo Services.

The cost of textbooks is a common complaint among students across North America, and UVic Libraries and faculty members are listening—and working to make things better.

With partnership and support from the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS), the Division of Learning, Teaching, Support and Innovation (LTSI), University Systems and BCcampus, Libraries is spearheading the open education resources (OER) movement at the university by offering publishing assistance and OER start-up grants to faculty members on campus, and alleviating the financial pressure for students so they can focus on their studies.

Over the last 18 months, five UVic faculty were awarded OER grants to take teaching, learning and research resources in any medium––digital, print or otherwise––and transition them as open-access materials, replacing commercial textbooks. Inba Kehoe, head copyright and scholarly communication, emphasizes that it can take faculty up to four to eight months to create a draft of an OER textbook from scratch, incorporating feedback from their students in the design and content, and hiring graduate students to pull the material together.

Student advocacy drives collaboration

Maxwell Nicholson stands in front of a large stack of textbooks. His arms are crossed over the top of the stack.
Maxwell Nicholson. Credit: UVic Photo Services.

In 2018, when UVic student Maxwell Nicholson was awarded a 3M National Student Fellowship, the academic world took notice. Nicholson launched a national campaign to bring awareness and action, advocating for open textbooks––books that are authored by professors for the intent of being used and taught without cost to students. His social media campaign using the hashtag #textbookbroke was supported by the UVSS, encouraging faculty to adopt open education resources.

With the ever increasing prices of textbooks for post-secondary classes, students are having to decide between paying for textbooks, or groceries. This is unacceptable. That’s why the UVSS has been in support of the adoption and funding of OERs for years. Not only do OERs increase affordability for students, they also increase accessibility in myriad ways.

—Marran Dodds, UVSS Director of Outreach and University Relations

With the additional strain of living through a pandemic, Kehoe and her library colleagues’ raison d’être is to support students along with faculty in their collective quest to equalize access to education materials. In 2019, UVic first awarded the OER grants to faculty from mathematics and statistics, geography, educational psychology and leadership studies and anthropology.

Faculty at the forefront

Recently Kehoe has been working with English professors Sara Humphreys and Erin Kelly to develop and publish a new open textbook, Why Write?: A Guide for Students in Canada, that will help first-year students become better academic writers. This open educational textbook is the result of collaborative work from members of the Academic and Technical Writing Program, the Centre for Academic Communication, and UVic Libraries. Support is strong for their effort. The Vice-President Academic and Provost made it possible to hire graduate assistants, and the Faculty of Humanities provided partial funding for a course release for Humphreys.

“Universities are communities that should welcome individuals who bring to their classes and research projects a wide range of interests, experiences, and knowledge,” says Kelly. “One barrier to access to university for some people is cost, including the high cost of textbooks, so we need to do all we can to create free educational materials that help students meet their academic goals. But it’s also crucial that we send the message that all sorts of people belong in and have something important to contribute to scholarly conversations. Why Write? is a textbook that tells students they are writers and that the world needs their writing.”

Kehoe adds that their textbook is proving to be so popular, even before it’s printed, that the Faculty of Social Sciences asked them for an open textbook too.

There are currently 1,160 students registered in ATWP135 this fall, and in spring 2022 about 950 students—for a collective cost savings of at least $52,750. Three other physics courses will be adopting parts of an open textbook for fall 2021 and spring 2022. The students registered in these courses will see a collective cost savings of $68,777 this upcoming academic year.

With support from BCcampus, UVic was able to not only award grants to instructors, but also fund a new complementary Open Education Faculty Fellows program that aims to allow faculty participants to reduce student barriers to accessibility by increasing the implementation of OER.

“We want to help make the decision to create affordable textbooks an easy one for faculty,” explains Kehoe. “One key criteria for faculty in applying for a grant is to determine how OERs may positively affect students and the number of students impacted. In addition, faculty with interest in online learning and teaching, adopting alternative assessment and exam strategies, and experiential learning online will be targeted for this program.”

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In this story

Keywords: education, awards, administrative, student life

People: Inba Kehoe, Maxwell Nicholson, Marran Dodds, Sara Humphreys, Erin Kelly

Publication: The Ring

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