Open textbook pilot should be made permanent

This fall, Congress designated $5 million to support the second year of the Open Textbook Pilot program, which encourages the use and development of “open” — as in available online and free to all students — textbooks at institutions of higher education.

It’s estimated that the additional funds, which bring the total investment to $10 million over two years, will lead to student savings worth 10 times the outlay. Textbook prices leapt 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the average price of supplies for students at four-year institutions topping $1,200 in the 2016-’17 school year.

There are multiple benefits to the pilot program for both students and college faculty.

Through the pilot, students will now have the materials necessary for a certain course at the start of the semester without having to hunt down cheaper alternatives. Furthermore, they will have unlimited access to the textbooks beyond the semester, as opposed to the time limit that is often associated with using access codes, which expire once a student completes the course.

And universities can direct money away from textbook financial aid to other pressing matters. Professors, if they adopt open textbooks, also have the ability to alter the textbooks they are using, as open textbooks work under a license that allows the content to be changed to best fit the needs of a course. With this in mind, the personalization of a textbook according to a professor’s wants would benefit both the students who are enrolled in the course, and also the professor, as they can take ownership over the materials that they have edited.

The Affordable Textbooks campaign at the University of Maryland, an extension of the student group MaryPIRG (Maryland Public Interest Research Group), aims to educate both faculty and administrators as about the advantages of adopting and promoting open textbooks for students. Specifically, the campaign advocates against the adoption of access codes for digital material, which place a student’s educational resources behind a paywall, as well as other exploitative practices taken up by textbook publishers to earn a profit off a student’s education, like releasing new editions of textbooks that are barely altered. These actions make paying for a college education near impossible for students who are already struggling with the rising price of higher education.

The campaign has collected data from students showing they believe that traditional textbooks are too expensive and that this problem is pervasive across campus.

The campaign has also reached out to professors and other faculty members through canvassing efforts, and urges professors who want to adopt open textbooks to sign a petition notifying the administration of their interest in these resources. Having the backing of academic departments is critical to moving the campaign forward, and in turn the program. The goal, of course, is to take it from pilot to permanent, benefiting us all.

Brooke Meadowcroft is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, and member of MaryPIRG. Her email is brookecatcroft@gmail.com.

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