Profs devote time to finding zero-cost materials

Stack of books crossed out with a large black “x.” Wikipedia Commons manipulated by Kate Thiessen

Textbooks a massive expense

This semester more than 50 courses at the U of R are running as zero-cost material courses, meaning all of the required texts and materials are open access and free for use. Though a new concept for some, the use of open-access material in place of required textbooks for post-secondary courses has been quickly gaining ground in recent years. There is much debate on which is truly better for students, along with whether or not the benefits of open-access materials are worth the effort for professors who have to change their current course structures. Using open-access materials it eases the financial stresses most students experience, but zero cost materials come with a time burden that makes some professors wary.

Kyley Ewing, an assistant professor in the University of Regina philosophy department, made the comment that, for professors, “In some ways it’s more work because you can’t just say ‘Here students, go buy this textbook and it’s all there for you’ and you’re done with it. You have to go out yourself and do the research, maybe contact the library, look online. Say for ancient philosophy you’re looking and there’s different sources that are open-access, then you have to look at the different kinds to see if one is better than another.”

While it can be time consuming to search for quality open-access sources, Ewing remarked that at times there are not adequate sources available on the topics required. “For some courses that I’ve done, I have thought that I’d do open-access, and then given up on it because I wasn’t able to find things that I thought were well suited to it. For instance, I did a critical thinking course and while I try to do open-access as much as possible, that seemed to not be feasible at all for that course.”

Amber Fletcher, an associate professor at the U of R in the area of sociology and social studies, noted that open-access material can be too advanced to be of use for introductory courses as students do not have the foundational knowledge to understand the content of academic journal articles so early in their degrees. It’s much more difficult to find free materials for introductory courses.

On a more positive note, Ewing pointed out that the University has been making an effort to aid course instructors in locating quality open-access materials. “We’ve been getting a couple emails from the university, just kind of saying that this is something they’re thinking about more and focusing on more now. It’s nice that the university is making this something that’s out there and that’s known, and they’re trying their hardest as well to support instructors in their attempts to find this material. Sometimes if instructors just don’t know what kinds of resources are out there, it can be daunting or intimidating to wonder ‘How do I set up this complete course when I don’t really know where to look for this material and I don’t know what the best material is?’ So that there is this resource from the university and the library shows that they’re saying they’re interested in this too and want to help instructors accomplish this.”

Darlene Juschka, an associate professor in women and gender studies and religious studies at the U of R, said that before gravitating towards open-access material she had set a limit on the cost of textbooks she would require students to purchase for her courses. “Before we went this way I had set up a rule that no text I assigned would ever go over a hundred dollars – I simply won’t do that. That’s too costly for students. When they have a number of courses and some courses require four or five books it is ridiculous what they end up paying.”

Along with the financial benefits for students, Juschka reported finding personal benefits as a researcher through integrating electronic copies with her hard copy resources, and she’s confident that students will benefit in much the same way. “They have an electronic copy which as a researcher is absolutely wonderful. One of the things I’ll do is I’ll read a ton of stuff, just a ton of stuff if I’m researching a topic, like we’re talking 30-40 articles and a bunch of books […] With e-copies, I can just search the term I want and I can find it right away, then I go to my hard copy and it’s hunky dory. So this has been a real treat for me as a researcher to go e-copy, and I figure for students they get the best of both worlds.”

Fletcher said she switched all of her courses from requiring textbooks to using open-access materials in the Winter 2018 semester after learning that a student in one of her courses was homeless, but had purchased their semester’s textbooks because that was a priority cost for them. “That was my wake-up call that there are more effective ways of doing this.”

Fletcher is currently working on constructing an open-access textbook so she is no stranger to the time and effort put in to writing one. She said that while professors put much work into their contributions, the royalties from the corporate textbook publishing industry are quite small in comparison, and smaller still when you consider what students actually pay for those textbooks.

To further that point, Juschka diplomatically stated that, “I do think that there is a business that’s been built off the backs of students who are often not in a position to take the weight of that. I understand that a long time ago universities were for elite folks so costs like this weren’t considered, but the democratization of the university in the 1960s, in post-WWII, has changed the landscape and we have to take a lot of things into account. That students have kids, they have financial commitments, that they’re also working sometimes or a lot of the time, and I think all of that has to be taken into account. One of the ways I did was by switching to e-copies through the library so we could reduce expense.”

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