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To combat soaring textbook costs, look to an open-source approach

For university and college faculty, the start of a new year means it is once again time for our inboxes to be flooded with e-mails from students asking "Do I really need the textbook?" or "May I use an older edition?" And for good reason. The cost of textbooks has risen by 1,041 per cent since 1977, more than triple the rate of inflation. Textbooks can cost anywhere between $50 and $450 for a single course, accounting for up to 40 per cent of a postsecondary student's educational costs.

As a faculty member, I have witnessed firsthand the impact of exorbitant textbook costs on my students' educational outcomes (for a glimpse, follow the hashtag #textbookbrokeBC). According to my latest research, published in the International Review of Research on Open and Distributed Learning, 54 per cent of B.C. students do without at least one of their required textbooks, while 27 per cent take fewer courses and 17 per cent drop courses, all because of high textbook costs. What is more, these students are more likely to hold a student loan, be working more hours a week and self-identify as a visible minority.

Fortunately, exorbitant textbook costs are a solvable problem. For one, the choice of required course materials rests with faculty who, contrary to popular belief, do not benefit personally from adopting a given publisher's book (unless of course they happen to be the author). Happily, over the past five years more than 400 instructors across 42 B.C. institutions have exercised their choice in a way that has saved our students more than $5.5-million, by adopting open textbooks.

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Open textbooks are textbooks that have been published with an open licence, which means they are available to students free of cost in a variety of digital formats and at the cost of printing for hard copies. This means that a student of mine can purchase a professionally bound 600-page textbook for social psychology for $18.22 instead of the usual $200. On top of these significant cost savings, students enjoy permanent access to their course materials, so, for example, a student taking a course in anatomy who plans to go on to medical school will always be able to reference it. The open licence also permits faculty to adapt these textbooks, whether by embedding local examples and statistics or incorporating recent developments.

The credit for this local innovation goes to BCcampus, the agency charged with leading the BC Open Textbook project. Launched in 2012 with support from the Ministry of Advanced Education, the goal of the project was to provide open textbooks for the 40 highest-enrolled undergraduate courses in the province, with additional funding later provided for trades and skills training.

Five years on, there are more than 225 open textbooks available in the B.C. repository (see open.bccampus.ca), including for subjects as wide-ranging as history, physics, psychology, tourism and common core trades. These textbooks have been written and reviewed by recognized faculty, who are compensated for their efforts. As well, a growing body of research (including studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the University of British Columbia) shows that students assigned open textbooks perform just as well or slightly better than those assigned commercial textbooks.

The positive impact of open-textbook adoption on both student access and success has led other provinces and territories to follow B.C.'s lead, with students from Yukon College to the University of Prince Edward Island now reaping the benefits. In recent years, the governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba each signed a memorandum of understanding with B.C. to collaborate on the development of open textbooks. And just last summer, eCampusOntario launched its own open textbook library.

Here in B.C., innovation continues with the development of Canada's first "Zed Creds"– entire degree programs with zero required-textbook costs. Kwantlen Polytechnic University – already the country's leading institutional adopter of open textbooks – launched the first such program in November of last year, with two other institutions (Thompson Rivers University and the the Justice Institute of British Columbia) soon to follow. To put it in tangible terms, a Zed Cred program is the equivalent of granting every student enrolled in the program a $1,000 scholarship each year. Even more important, exorbitant textbook costs need no longer compel our most vulnerable students to choose between buying groceries and purchasing a required textbook.

Rajiv Jhangiani is a psychology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.

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