Let’s face it. Buying textbooks sucks. Especially when a professor claims they are required, but never requires any actual reading, because everything on the test is on the powerpoint slides. Then at the end of the semester, you try to sell the book, only to get maybe $20 for your very expensive paperweight. As professors we have the power to bring down this terrible system by incorporating open pedagogy to our courses (for more on open pedagogy, listen to this great podcast).
Textbooks are one example of a barrier to an open inclusive pedagogy. The added financial burden of purchasing books can prevent low-income students from attending college. If our ideal is to make education available to everyone, what can we do about this?
One way to overcome this barrier is through text rental. I was fortunate in my undergrad at UW-Stevens Point to have this system. It was a university-wide system where students were charged a small fee, (something like $12/credit while I was there) and then they borrowed books from the bookstore and returned them at the end of the semester. This system had a lot of benefits. It was much cheaper than buying books out right, and since it was a fee, financial aid could cover it (thanks Student Loans, I can never repay you). Students were not stuck with textbooks from general education courses that they will never use again, but if they wanted to, they could pay for the book to keep it. Also, since it was across the entire university, it did not rely on individual professors’ willingness to adopt open pedagogy practices. This of course, is not the perfect solution to all pedagogical troubles. There are definitely some downsides. For one, there is still the issue of being able to remix content to fit an individual course. Students were still responsible for buying their own supplementary texts, which could really hurt students taking a lot of literature courses or courses with lab manuals. In about 99.9% of cases, students do not retain the textbooks, because it still cost about $200 to keep a heavily used, pre-highlighted textbook at the end of the semester. I’m sure there were also some restrictions on professors to prevent them from switching textbooks every other semester. Although it’s not perfect, it is still a cool system that you should consider advocating for at your institution.
Another solution is to use open textbooks which can be altered to fit a specific course, and students can keep access to them. For me, open textbooks seemed like the perfect solution to open pedagogy at first. There are some issues here to consider. First, taking open sources and revising and remixing them to suit a course takes a lot of effort on the part of the professor. It could be pretty overwhelming for a professor just beginning to build a new course, and even a veteran professor making the switch to open sources may take several semesters to get everything together. Additionally, for some disciplines like Soil Science, open textbooks are virtually non-existent (If any of you can find an open text for soil science or environmental microbiology, please let me know in the comments). This is particularly frustrating as there is only 1 decent intro Soil Science book that is used and every new edition gets more expensive. Another thing brought up in the podcast is that creating open resource material is a privilege not every professor can afford. We should be mindful of the human cost of “free” material.
A third alternative is to abandon textbooks altogether. Instead, using other open source materials, or sources that are freely available through the university to impart knowledge to students. These can be very effective by using various media to explain concepts. These can easily be customized to fit a specific course. In sciences, we can chose to make lab manuals we’ve designed available online and allow students to print them out, or pull them up online in class to avoid forcing them to pay exorbitant prices through the book store. The downsides are again that finding these sources can be time-consuming for professors, and in some cases, finding readings that are not too dense or involved can be tricky. Although, if part of the course is for students to develop various ways of explaining topics, either by videos, animations, slides, written descriptions, etc. that can be shared (with permission) to students in future semesters, this obstacle can be slowly overcome.
The best method to embrace open pedagogy depends on the professor and the course, and may change with time. However, if we truly desire education for all, we have to find ways to incorporate accessibility and inclusivity in the courses we design, and the materials we require.