Open source textbooks becoming a better option

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story misrepresented the number of students who have used OpenStax textbooks. 674,000 students have used OpenStax textbooks. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.


One answer to the problem of high textbook prices could be open source textbooks, which are available online at little or no cost.

Students with the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group’s textbook affordability campaign promoted open source textbooks in the Pit in February.

Sam Snider, the textbook affordability campaign coordinator, said the reason for high textbook prices is a lack of alternatives to traditional course materials.

“Think about textbooks. You want to make an A right? You gotta buy the textbook to make an A, so boom, you got no choice. Consumer choice, very low, and so that makes the price elasticity very low as well,” he said.

"I mean, textbook companies can jack up the price and you still have to buy the book — it’s captive."

Philip Cave, a first-year volunteer with the N.C. PIRG affordability campaign, said he works with professor outreach.

“We’re trying to get them to adopt (open source textbooks). They have the option of writing the textbooks, but we understand there are enough open source textbooks out there in digital libraries,” he said

Cave said the textbook affordability campaign uses social media to promote student awareness.

“On our Instagram account, we post various student stories about the cost of their textbooks. We have a big sign that says ‘how much did you pay for your textbook?’ and they get to write down on a little whiteboard what they paid,” Cave said.

Snider said students can find free course materials on the Carolina Open Educational Resources homepage and other open educational resources websites such as Rice University's OpenStax College and the University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library.

Dani Nicholson, spokesperson for OpenStax, said the collection of 16 textbooks that OpenStax provides has been very popular.

She said 674,000 students have used their textbooks, which has saved students a total of $66 million.

Nicholson said the current goal for OpenStax is to produce textbooks for the top 25 highest enrolled courses in the nation.

“We are trying to help as many students as possible, and so we found out that that’s the best way to do it, by targeting those top courses,” she said.

Kelly Hanner, the textbook department manager for UNC Student Stores, said the Student Stores endorses the use of open source textbooks.

“We had the chemistry department get in touch with those particular students who were incoming first-year students to kind of explain what the open source would be like. And we got in touch with those particular people as well and said ‘well, you know, why don’t you go ahead and see how you like the open source before we charge you for the printed copy,” she said.

Hanner said while Student Stores is losing money to open source textbooks, she thinks they are a good thing because they benefit students. She said she will be working to provide more open source materials to students in the future.

“If Student Stores gets to stay University-owned, I’m going to be providing the University with an inclusive access link,” she said. “It’s basically digital materials, virtual course materials available for a particular class if a faculty member opts in. It’s the lowest retail price on the market. It’s below rentals.”

Snider said the digital format of open source course materials gives them an advantage over their physical counterparts.

“They’re changeable by the instructor mid-course, they’re customizable. Number two, they’re searchable. Like you can press control-f and search throughout the whole textbook,” he said.

Cliff Missen is the director of WiderNet@UNC, a nonprofit project that aims to provide information resources to developing countries. He said open source textbooks are good for everyone.

“Every bit of effort that we do to create open material like this improves not only our standing and our capacity to teach and spread this information, but it has the potential to improve lives all over the world,” he said.

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