Last week OUSA launched our #TextbookBroke campaign and the uptake on social media has been phenomenal. Students have been sharing their struggles with the high cost of course materials and explaining what they could have spent that money on instead, including rent and groceries. Reading the tweets and messages from students across the province has led me to reflect on my undergraduate experience, and to think about the impact that Open Educational Resources (OERs) could have had on me during my university studies.
Admittedly, prior to my tenure as a student executive at the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union, I had no idea that OERs even existed, let alone what they were capable of. So for those of you who are in a similar boat, here is a quick summary. OERs are broadly defined as educational resources that are housed online and are created as a resource that anybody can openly share, create, or revise. Professors are able to tailor these resources specifically to their courses, and students are able to access them at little-to-no cost (depending on whether or not they want a print copy).
As a student who worked throughout his entire undergraduate degree, I could have benefited significantly from the cost saving opportunities that OERs provide. During my first year, I worked midnights at a Tim Horton’s just to afford the additional cost of education. Thankfully my parents had saved money for my tuition, residence, and ancillary fees, however, the cost of textbooks, food, gas and car insurance were all left up to me.
My first significant out of pocket costs came during the second day of orientation week. One of my roommates and I decided that we should brave the bookstore line rather than go to a daytime orientation event. After a 45-minute wait in a line that never seemed to end, I gathered my books and proceeded to the cash register. When I got to the counter I was told that my bill exceeded $800 dollars, and I was asked if I wanted to pay by cash, credit or debit.
It was here that I was forced to make my first big “adult” financial decision. I could enter into debt using the credit card I had just recently acquired for the first time, or only pay for a portion of the books. Being wary of debt (I had JUST gotten my first credit card and had not yet lined up my future midnight job at Tim Horton’s), I chose the latter and told myself I would return to buy the books I needed for my tutorials in the second half of the semester later. By the time I had made enough money from working part time, the bookstore was already stocking books for the following term and I was unable to purchase the books I needed to effectively participate in my history classes. Thankfully, I was able to push my way through those discussions, but my marks would have definitely been better had I had the learning materials I needed.
I would like to say that my first term of school was the last time that I was placed in a situation like this, but it was not. Thankfully, I eventually made friendships with other students in my program and we were able to split the costs of books together, however, there were times throughout my 5 years at Laurier that I avoided courses I was quite interested in simply due to the high cost of the course materials. I can’t help but think that if more professors had used OERs, that I would have not only had higher grades as a result of having all/more of my required course materials, but that I would have also been able to take more courses I enjoy.
Now that I am done my undergraduate education and have entered the working world, it still saddens me that my story is not unique. Looking at the responses to our #TextbookBroke campaign there are many students who share similar experiences, and students who are in a much more dire financial position than I ever was. Finances should never be a barrier to academic success, nor should a student ever have to avoid a course they would love just due to the cost of their learning materials. I applaud the initial work that the government and eCampusOntario has done, but there is still more to do. Hopefully sometime soon we can get to a point where learning materials are widely available in an open format, and students do not have to choose between being financially secure and their own academic success.