A world without textbooks? Library lunchtime series shows how Open Educational Resources could make it possible

Two women look at each other and laugh in front of a whiteboard.
Kimberly Jackson, STEM librarian at the Claremont Colleges Library, asks a student about textbook costs outside of the McConnell Center Mar. 3. Librarians are advocating for professors to use Open Educational Resources to decrease textbook costs. (Chris Nardi • The Student Life)

How can students get their textbooks without breaking the bank or breaking the law? 

From March 2 to March 6, librarians at the Claremont Colleges Library celebrated Open Education Week in order to promote one way to avoid resorting to expensive textbooks or internet piracy: Open Educational Resources.

OERs, ranging from full courses to textbooks and other teaching materials, exist in the public domain under a Creative Commons or similar license. They can be downloaded, shared, adapted and personalized by anyone with internet access.

They’re also adaptive, meaning faculty can change them to fit their needs.

“Let’s say your students are studying at the Botanical Gardens,” Jennifer Beamer, the library’s scholarly communication librarian, said via email. “[The professor] can adapt the textbook, or even have students adapt the textbook, to suit the situation. It’s really inclusive.”

Megan Donnelly, the library’s teaching and outreach librarian, said the intent of the week was to bring a conversation happening in some spaces into the mainstream.

“It seems like librarians are definitely talking about [OERs] a lot,” Donnelly said. “Faculty are talking about it. Some administrators are talking about it, but students are missing from the conversation a lot. So we’re just trying to raise awareness by having these programs each day.”

Each day of the week, librarians visited 5C dining halls to raise students’ awareness of OERs and how they can advocate for the inclusion of open resources in their classes.

As students walked by, the librarians would ask them how much they had spent on textbooks for the spring semester, marking their response on a whiteboard graph. Then they would briefly explain OERs and how they can reduce the costs of course materials while improving education access.

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The goal, Donnelly explained, was to inspire students to tell their professors about OERs and to let them know that they can ask librarians to help them find online resources in their field of study. 

In the future, the librarians hope to compile data on the amount students spend on textbooks and how they address the costs of course materials while also working alongside students interested in advocating for OERs.

“As librarians we can help faculty identify and adopt materials that they can bring into the classroom, and help students advocate with faculty to find alternatives to the high cost of textbooks,” Beamer said.

But OERs face some limitations that prevent them from fulfilling specific educational needs. While they cover a majority of introductory subjects, from chemistry to literary analysis, they lack higher level course subjects and materials because professors must release the information and lesson materials to the public. 

“For some of the junior [and] senior courses, there’s not a lot of material,” Beamer said.

Without the necessary materials online, professors turn to textbooks for their specific subject, which remain under copyright laws and students must buy.

As librarians talked with students, they learned that many had developed or found various ways of circumventing the high costs of textbooks and other course materials.

Some students, like Andie Sheridan PO ’21, mentioned that they get their materials through their professors that post readings on Sakai or check out or download the materials from the library.

Other students buy textbooks they need for their classes.

“I spend maybe $400 a year for three textbooks,” said Chris Ferrarin HM ’20. “I only buy ones I think I’ll need to use later.”

Yet, Ferrarin considers himself a rare case for buying his textbooks in comparison to the general student body.

“I think most people pirate most textbooks, like they will try to find electronic copies. Those are more convenient and obviously cheaper,” Ferrarin said.

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