SGA initiative works towards free textbooks


The Student Government Association (SGA) is working with librarians and faculty to provide free and low-cost textbooks and other class resources for students and professors. The initiative is still in its infancy, but supporters hope to incorporate open educational resources (OER) in some lower-division courses over the next few years.

The idea was first proposed by the previous SGA president, Brenna Hill, and her vice president, Shivani Parmar. SGA’s Textbook Affordability Committee is now spearheading the initiative. Diane Graves, university librarian and professor, explains how OER materials could be incorporated in classes.

“From a student’s perspective, it would work a lot like what happens now. A faculty member would say ‘These are the readings for class,’ but you would have access to an electronic, web-based textbook, or [a physical] one you could buy for very low price.”

Joseph Khalaf, junior and current vice president of SGA, explains further.

“Typically the online version of the book will be free or very low cost, and you can purchase a print version for about $30 — basically, what it cost to print the book,” Khalaf said. “The concept is, in an Intro to Economics class, you don’t need the latest edition because very little, if anything, changes. But maybe [this wouldn’t work for] an upper-division neuroscience class.”

Graves cites Rice University’s OpenStax, a non-profit organization that publishes openly licensed textbooks for students’ benefit, as one successful example of OER in action.

“Those books are written by faculty members at colleges and universities, just like the ones that you pay big bucks for,” Graves said. “They are vetted, meaning that they go through a peer-review process the same way as anything else, so the quality is fairly high.”

She cites foreign languages, economics, philosophy and intro-level science courses as a few examples of classes that could benefit from incorporating open educational resources in their syllabi.

“Mainstream publishers are for-profit entities; their goal is to provide those materials but also to make money, so there’s a pretty significant upcharge on those things,” Graves said. “When textbooks start costing almost $300 or more, and they’re in a subject that doesn’t change often, [something] is wrong with the traditional textbook-publishing model.”

First-year Simone Washington, an SGA senator, urged the importance of lowering the costs of textbooks.

“Cost should not be a barrier,” Washington said. “Paying for education [through textbooks] on top of paying for education through tuition is too much of a burden for too many students.”

Graves agrees, lauding the fairness inherent to free and low-cost textbooks.

“There’s a leveling quality to it,” Graves said. “If you’ve got a very wealthy student who has no problem paying for those books, that’s great. If you’ve got a student on financial aid who’s really trying to figure out how to use their money as carefully as possible, they don’t have to buy that $300 book and still have access to the same content. That’s fair.”

Besides openly licensed textbooks, Graves notes that there exists another OER model. Many courses, especially in the social sciences and humanities, assign textbooks that are essentially compilations of excerpts, journal articles and essays that can be found elsewhere. Trinity librarians will be able to build lists of course readings for classes by using the resources already available to anyone searching the library’s catalogue online, which includes open access journals and database subscriptions.

The Textbook Affordability Committee worked with the Board of Visitors, a group of alumni and business leaders, to obtain administration approval for the push towards incorporating OER materials in classrooms. But now they need to convince faculty to adopt OER textbooks and readings in their syllabi. Khalaf explains the challenges ahead.

“Issue number one is that [some] faculty don’t really know about the high cost of textbooks,” Khalaf said. “The committee is compiling both quantitative and qualitative data to make faculty more aware of the rising textbook costs, how much these textbooks cost in the large scheme of things.”

Khalaf mentioned a forthcoming survey comparing students’ spending on textbooks over the years, examining the costs of the textbooks on classes’ syllabi, and interviewing students to hear about their experiences buying textbooks and receiving feedback from students’ perspective.

“This data is going to be pitched to faculty members,” Khalaf said. “We’re going to focus on convincing one professor from each department to adopt an [OER textbook] and, if it really works out for them, we’d have a success story to show other professors.”

In 2009, Trinity became the fifth U.S. university to adopt an Open Access policy that allows faculty to post their scholarly research on Trinity’s freely accessible digital repository, the Digital Commons. Typically, peer-reviewed journals retain all rights to a scholar’s work and usually keep research behind expensive paywalls; the Open Access policy democratizes access to scholarship authored by Trinity faculty. Graves hopes that the OER initiative will follow in the tradition of Open Access policies.

Trinity staff and faculty are invited to attend a workshop the morning of Feb. 24 in the Collaborative for Learning and Teaching; the workshop will be run by members of the Open Textbook Network, an alliance of higher-education institutions working together to create and share openly licensed textbooks.