Open Textbooks Project Needs to Open Minds

On Tuesday, the BC Government made an unexpected announcement that they had plans to “lead Canada in offering students free, open textbooks.”

BC’s 40 most popular courses will get free textbooks! Up to 200,000 students will benefit! Savings of hundreds of dollars or more! In place as early as next September!

Sound too good to be true? It is. The open textbook announcement was made with few of the details having been worked out and the press release was correspondingly vague. This has led alternately to having people wonder about what’s really going on, as well as people inventing in their own minds how the program will work.

Sentences like “open textbooks are expected to be created with input from B.C. faculty, institutions and publishers through an open Request for Proposal process” makes it sound like the project will involve a lot of textbook creation. But this project is less about creating open textbooks, and more about convincing people to actually use them.

In a lot of cases, open textbooks that BC students could use already exist. The organization coordinating the BC open textbook project, BCCampus, already has links to a number of open textbook sources on their website. One of the featured examples is Open Stax, a project of Rice University in Texas, which currently offers open textbooks for introductory courses in Physics and Sociology, with books for Anatomy & Physiology, and Biology coming soon. The books look well-done and are Creative Commons-licenced, meaning that students can download a PDF copy for free. For a professionally printed copy, the 500-page Open Stax Sociology text is available for under $30; the 1200-page Physics text is under $50. Or you can get it printed yourself from the PDF.

Rather than write an introductory physics text from scratch, it seems much more likely that the Open Stax version could be adopted for use in BC as well. Alternately, because of the way Creative Commons licencing works, entire chapters or large excerpts of the Open Stax version could be adopted (with attribution) and combined with new content generated in BC. The result would be a remixed textbook: part Open Stax, part original, and customized to match the curricula of introductory physics courses offered at BC universities. Or an entirely new textbook could be written from scratch, although that approach, if used on all 40 courses, seems like needlessly reinventing the wheel.

So the creation of textbooks won’t be the main challenge of this initiative. A lot of it has been done, and there’s a reasonably large base of material that’s already available to be used or remixed to create new books. This doesn’t just include existing open textbooks, but any bits of instructor-generated course material that could be combined and incorporated into an open textbook. Instead, the key will be convincing professors to use them. Without a concerted effort to push faculty to adopt open textbooks, it’s entirely possible to imagine a scenario in which BCCampus has an open textbook available, but that no BC university decides to use it.

The government’s promise to work with universities to develop an open textbook policy is nice, but the most important thing will be for these books to have a champion who will promote these books to professors in the same way a big publishing company would. It’ll take a push to overcome the inertia of having instructors simply use the latest edition of the book that’s been in use for the last decade.

Many questions about the project don’t currently have answers. Who will be writing the textbooks? Not sure, and in some cases, the books may already be written. Which courses will be included in the list of “40 most popular” receiving free textbooks? That list hasn’t been decided yet, and may be based more on books that are available rather than course popularity. Have any universities committed to using these textbooks? Not yet. But it’s still a good initiative to be optimistic about, a vote of confidence for the use of more open educational materials in BC.


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