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Open Educational Resources

The second week of September has rolled around once again. Students have returned to campus. First years and Welcome Week reps are still glowing from the excitement of the week. Upper years still look refreshed from their summers off of school with the seemingly permanent bags under their eyes left behind. The libraries, while busy, are filled with happy chatter rather than panicked individuals cramming for exams or finishing up final essays.

The lines in our campus store are about as long as those for our Welcome Week concert two weeks before. However, the students do not look nearly as excited. They stand with a pile of textbooks under one arm, credit card in hand, and a somber look on their faces. It is not abnormal for their bills to be well over $500 for their first semester of courses.

On Day 1 of the #TextbookBroke campaign, we had people stopping to ask us questions before our table was completely set up. The curiosity continued throughout the day – just a glance at the messaging of “Rent Over Textbooks” intrigued them to walk over. It was a message that truly resonated with them. We heard how students were putting off buying textbooks, spending hours looking for pirated versions online or purchasing old versions just to save some money.

As a recent graduate, I can echo these sentiments. My first weeks of classes were coordinating meet-ups with students in my program where we would pass on the textbooks to the next generation for those few classes with the same professors who have used the same texts for years. A few students would dive deep into the internet to find a pirated version of our textbook to benefit the many. Eventually, we would give up on a few niche textbooks we could not find and head over to the Campus Store to pick up our brand new glossy textbooks with not so pretty of a price tag.  

My second year particularly stands out to me in terms of textbooks. Both my statistics and physics professors decided to use a new textbook, removing the possibility of purchasing used books from either the upper years in my program or the campus store, which coordinates a buy-back program. Each textbook would cost me $200. My biology professor also decided to adopt a more recent version of a textbook, which would be an additional cost to the lab notebook I would already need to purchase for the course (which differed from my chemistry lab notebook I just purchased the year before). I switched out of a Theatre & Film elective, which was a passion and personal interest of mine because the textbook would cost $250. With the rising cost of tuition, it was too hard to stomach the final bill I would have been presented with if I did not find other means of saving money on textbooks.

What had meant the world to me was when my economics professor had told us that the textbook he would be using was free online – legally. The term Open Educational Resources had not made its way into our vocabulary yet, but that is exactly what it was. Our professor had written the textbook and it had been published for many years. While it used to be sold across North America, slowly professors chose to adopt different textbooks from larger publishers that offer lecture slides and test banks. My professor chose not to create these materials to supplement his book and so the publisher informed him that they would discontinue its publication. After looking through his contract, he discovered a clause that allowed him to take back the rights to his textbook. When he asked for these rights back, the publisher told him that no one had ever asked before, but they were happy to oblige. My professor also bought all of the physical textbooks left in stock at cost. From there, he placed his textbook online and sold the remaining physical copies through our program office at a cost of $5 to students in his class. This saved me over $50 for one of ten courses I would be taking that year. It also gave me the freedom to use different mediums to view the same information. If I forgot the textbook at home, I could read it online. If I wanted to highlight and sticky tab different pages, I could use the physical copy. And if I did not want to scroll/flip from the questions in the textbook to the answer key, I could have both the online and physical copy open at the same time. It was so convenient and one of the reasons why I liked and excelled in that economics courses.

Open Educational Resources give students and professors freedom in many ways including the one I just described. Students often talk about wanting a physical textbook, which is still completely possible with OERs as a result of the Creative Commons License. Professors often like only certain sections from different textbooks – by using OERs, they can create their own unique learning material or assign multiple OERs, rather than requiring students to purchase multiple expensive texts. Additionally, OERs make education more affordable. Textbooks can cost students over $2000 per year. That is on top of tuition, rent, food, transportation, and other expenses associated with being a student, all of which increase every year. Reducing the costs of textbooks and other learning materials will relieve some of that financial pressure from students while ensuring that they have the learning resources necessary to excel academically.

While it is important to acknowledge that there currently is not an OER that works for every single course offered at Ontario Universities, there is a good number (264 to be exact) that are strong possibilities. For professors, it can certainly be challenging to be one of the first to join in on a movement and adopt an OER. However, we only need to look to British Columbia to see how successful these resources can be.  Even still, any potential risk is well worth it; if not for the students in the classroom, then for the satisfaction of being able to say down the line that you were one of the firsts that join in on a trend that became common sense.

The movement in adopting OERs will certainly take time. It requires shifts in thinking and changes within the University for OERs to be the first resource professors look to when choosing materials for their classes. In a capitalist society, we often equate something’s true value to its monetary one. We do not believe that enough time, energy, or resources went into a product if we are simply giving it away for free. However, if both the university and the provincial government choose to invest in the creation of OERs and highlight their benefits, we can shift this thinking. OERs will soon be seen as a public good that helps to increase access to a high quality and affordable education.