The Textbook Challenge: Two Sides of a Debate

Student Life hosts Raider Voices panel in which professors and students discuss the viability of free use textbooks

March 9, 2016

In what is hopefully the first in a series of student led panels, Pierce’s Open Education Project Manager Carrie West was invited to speak about the Open Education program and why it was necessary for Pierce.

Textbook costs are a constant concern for students.  Often costing upwards of hundreds of dollars, many students look to used book sellers, or even illegal downloading.  

The Open Education Project was created as a resource of free textbooks created by teachers that students can use, but like any solution, there are pros and cons.

Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) released a study on February 3 that found 5.2 million U.S. undergraduates spend a total of three billion dollars of their financial aid money on textbooks each year.

According to Carrie West, it all goes back to policy making.  “...those costs are coming out of financial aid, which starts with our government and which starts with taxes.  So it shows a clear line between how the public supports financial aid and the textbook industry.”

The Open Education Project provides multiple books on different subjects such as Microeconomics, all of which are written themselves by instructors.  The immediate reaction is that this can only be a good thing.  After all, the books are written directly by the educators, and are free to use.  

However, Beth Norman, teacher of Earth Sciences and Geography, and David Lippman, who teaches math, the problems with Open Education may outweigh its benefits.

“The biggest con is that there isn’t readily available material that isn’t of what I would consider ‘college level quality,’”  Norman said, citing an example of a textbook that was covered in grammatical errors.  

“It was something I would have given a student a D or an F for if they turned it in as a paper… all of the things an editor and a publisher would be doing wasn’t present.”

She also stated problems with the region in which the textbooks were made.  A book used by Canadian teachers used geography from its home region, rather than ones from the United States.  In Norman’s own words, “How could you not have Yellowstone in your textbook?”

Lippman cites similar issues: “I definitely agree that quality is the biggest issue.  The faculty are always going to say ‘what’s the best material for class,’ and if the free material isn’t the best, than that’s going to raise issues.”

However, Lippman also has problems of his own: “One of the other big issues of faculty adopting free resources is publishers provide a lot of material beyond just the textbook.  While the student sees just the textbook, the teacher sees maybe PowerPoint slides, exam materials, and a bunch of other resources they can use to help support the course.”  According to Lippman, many of the free resource textbooks are just that: textbooks, with little additional resources that may enhance the class.

In response to a question asking what exactly these free resource textbooks look like, Lippman said that “the reality is these materials look like everything.”  

According to Lippman, there are some free materials that are comparable to regularly published textbooks, but there are others that “look more like a wikipedia or wikibooks site, because that’s exactly what they are.”

“You have to remember that these books were originally created by faculty for their own use, and the quality is going to depend greatly on who created it, where, and how much effort they put into it.”  Lippman added.

The amount of support faculty members are getting from the school and through grants can also affect the quality, said West.

Though free textbooks are a dream many share, it is clear there is still work to be done.  There are currently no set plans on the next Raider Voices panel.


The Average Student’s Textbook Spending

Public Two-Year In-District: $1,364

Public Four-Year In-State: $1,298

Public Four-Year Out-of-State: $1,298

Private Non-Profit Four-Year: $1,249

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