Senators push for open textbooks to alleviate textbook costs

As a professor stands in front of a general education Physics 101 classroom, he explains that the class’ mandatory textbook, which normally costs $250 at the Illini Union Bookstore, is an open textbook that can be downloaded online for free. This is the Illinois Student Senate’s dream for the spring semester.

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The senate is now gearing up for one of its main initiatives of the semester: adding more open educational resources on campus for general education courses, which would likely lessen the cost of education for a majority of students. These open educational resources include open-access textbooks and free online classes.

Open-access textbooks are open-license documents and differ from e-books, which students still have to pay for. Open textbooks look similar to traditional textbooks and can be downloaded to a user’s computer as a PDF, whereas e-books generally use an online interface.

“A lot of students are definitely looking at this, and a lot of institutions are definitely considering more of those types of options, specifically from an affordability perspective for students,” said Jonathan Lackland, deputy director for advancement, external and government relations at the Illinois Board of Higher Education. 

Lackland said many students are now pushing for this initiative, and faculty members can see the benefit as they stand witness to the overall educational expenses that students incur. 

Attending the Association of Big Ten Students conference in January, where many Big Ten student governments gather and share ideas, inspired student senator Matt Hill to campaign for more open educational resources at the University. 

Hill, sophomore in LAS, hopes to attract more than one general education course to adopt an open textbook; however, “just getting one gen-ed course would make a large financial difference for the students here,” he said.

College Board’s “College Costs” study estimates that the average student at a four-year public college spends around $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies. 

Najia Yarkhan, senior in Engineering, said she typically spends about $500 per year on textbooks and buys them in a variety of ways, either online through Amazon or at one of the bookstores on campus. 

On Monday, Hill received feedback from intrigued senators on the Urbana-Champaign Senate’s Educational Policy Committee after briefing them on increasing on-campus textbook affordability. 

One faculty member recommended that Hill focus on tuition rates, but he said adopting open textbooks would be an easier and quicker way to save students’ money. Another faculty member voiced uneasiness regarding the validity of an open textbook, questioning whether an open textbook would be officially considered a published book by the University, which could derail a faculty member from the tenure track.

“However, it is (valid) because it is published through a publisher, and open textbooks are still peer-reviewed,” Hill said. 

Hill began by reaching out to Tim Gilles, portfolio coordinator, who acted as a project manager for the University’s first open-source textbook, “Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation,” which has been used by more than 60,000 students.

In 2010, a $150,000 grant was given to the University of Illinois system by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to create an open textbook. With this grant, “Sustainability” was made possible. 

All three campuses collaborated, and faculty members were each given specific topics to write about. 

Hill also spoke with Jonathan Tomkin, associate director for the School of Earth, Society and Environment, who uses the open-textbook in both Earth Systems and Introduction to Sustainability, a Massive Open Online Course on Coursera. 

Between 2002 and 2012, the cost of college textbooks has risen 82 percent, more than three times the rate of inflation, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office. Because of this, the student senate has begun to take initiative.

“We are committed to lowering the cost of college education, and we believe that textbooks (are) something that impacts every student’s life no matter where you come from or who you are,” said Illinois Student Senate Vice President-External Carey Ash. 

The first step Ash plans to take is to compile a list of all textbooks currently available through open access. Next, the senate will head an awareness campaign to notify faculty members that the textbooks are available. Finally, he hopes to make open-education resources more of a second nature to both faculty and students.

According to a study by U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and The Student Public Interest Research Group, 82 percent of students felt they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available for free online and purchasing a hard copy was optional. 

“This particular initiative is a two-way street. Faculty sometimes get frustrated that students don’t have the books, and students get frustrated that they can’t afford the books,” Ash said. “By publishing a list of all the open-access textbooks and allowing faculty to peruse which ones they would like to use for their classes, we see this as a win-win for both faculty and students.” 

A similar process was initiated within the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Student Advisory Committee, which comprises a group of students from several institutions.  The committee worked with State Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, D-5, to submit H.R. 457, which encourages students, publishers and faculty members to sit down and look at options to make textbooks more affordable. 

“Hats off to the students because (they) have really pushed this,” Lackland said. “This was an issue that they thought was near and dear to their hearts, and they felt the need for it based upon what other students have brought to them.”

Hill plans to speak with the Office of the Provost and the General Education Board within the Urbana-Champaign Senate. He is also considering adopting an online petition, similar to what Student Public Interest Research Groups use, which would encourage faculty members to further explore open-educational resources for their courses. 

Megan can be reached at majones5@dailyillini.com and @meganash_jones.