B.C.'s free textbooks plan needs a closer look - Macleans.ca

B.C.’s free textbooks plan needs a closer look

Prof. Pettigrew is skeptical



This week, the B.C. government announced its plan to make free textbooks available to its students. This is one of those concoctions that smells delicious until you get a bit closer. And then it seems half baked. And then you realize it might even have been a recipe for disaster all along.

First, it is not at all clear who will be writing these books.  None of the published reports I have seen make this point clear, and the government press release says they will be “created” with “input” from faculty and others. That sounds ominous. The only textbook that sounds worse than a free government textbook is a free government textbook created by a committee.

Even more ominous, none of the “quotes” in their press release is from an actual university instructor. Were faculty even consulted about this scheme?

Second, are these cobbled-together texts really going to be the best available texts? Almost certainly not. Conscientious profs may not, therefore, assign them in the first place. You can lead a prof to the web, but you can’t make her download. Besides, in a great many courses textbooks contain modern readings already themselves under copyright, especially in the humanities: think Modern Philosophy, for example. Such readings could not, I suspect, legally be included in an open source text. Which gives students yet another incentive to stop studying, say, Canadian Poetry. In fact, when I went to the web site of BCcampus, the group that will coordinate the this process, they directed me to a site with “good examples” of open textbooks. None of them were in humanities disciplines. With more digging, I did find an open-source art history “textbook,” but it was disappointing. When I clicked on a modern art section, for instance, I got an interesting, but rather casual chat on YouTube (favourite line in video: “This is a wild painting, really!). Interesting, no doubt, and even educational to an extent, but it’s not a textbook.

In any case, if profs do assign these books, chances are high that they will only be caving to student pressure to assign them because they are free. Which sounds fine until you realize that textbooks are different. The bureaucrats in Victoria may assume that a text is a text is a text, but anyone who has actually worked closely with such books knows better. Textbooks vary widely in their approach, content, and quality, and to imagine that one can be slapped together online and be good simply because it’s cheap is naïve.

Still further, the books are only free if you get the online version—which raises more questions. What, for instance, about courses where students need to have the texts in class to consult some key passage? Does that mean all students will need to purchase book readers or tablets to use them? Even if the cost of such items is recouped by the free books, such a scenario simply begs for more distracted students closing the textbook and opening Facebook.

If B.C. really wants to help students make ends meet, they could cut  tuition by the 1,200 bucks or so that students are paying for real books. Now that would be sweet. It won’t happen of course, because few governments in this country are willing to spend more on education these days.

But in social policy, as in text books, you get what you pay for.

Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor in English at Cape Breton University.

To see BCcampus’s response to this post, click here.


B.C.’s free textbooks plan needs a closer look

  1. Why doesn’t the government just subsidise textbooks? Surely, these “second best” books are costing something. What absurd thinking!

  2. I would also be curious or suspicious of any politician-led attempt to produce free textbooks.

    But open-source textbooks have been around for a while. They are not a new thing and there are quality open-source textbooks out there. They’re not all “cobbled-together” and students have learned how to read them.

    I won’t comment on the lack of free or open-source textbooks in the arts and humanities. Math and the sciences are off to a good start, and there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for their growth and potential.

  3. Professor Pettigrew is a well respected researcher and as such, should have done a little more research on open educational resources before expounding on the subject. His first error is that he claims that it “not at all clear who will be writing these books. “ It only isn’t clear to someone who has read the short news release and conducted only a cursory search of the Internet. To Open Educational Resource proponents, it is very clear (and unmistakably so). Faculty write open textbooks, and like many proprietary published texts, they receive input from faculty, course designers and editors.

    Secondly, there are NO government open textbooks. Open texts are controlled by the faculty unlike proprietary published texts, which are controlled by private interests.

    Thirdly, not only are faculty consulted, but there are no open textbooks without faculty.

    Fourthly, many proprietary published texts are “cobbled together”. So, such a text may or may not be the best available. And, most OER texts are NOT cobbled together in any case.

    Fifth, I believe that conscientious profs will assign the best texts for their students whether proprietary or open. The price of the text should not be the most important consideration, but it should be an important consideration.

    Sixth, Prof Pettigrew is guilty of the “all or nothing” fallacy. Quite reasonably there is room for open texts where possible and proprietary works when needed.

    Seventh, Open texts are an incentive for students to study and this has been shown where they are adopted. Many students simply cannot afford proprietary texts and so do not buy them. When the texts are free or low cost, more students can more actively participate.

    Eighth, there are less open textbooks in the humanities, but there are some. So, if there are no open textbooks then there are none to be used. Maybe in the humanities it will take more time for textbooks to appear. That is up to the humanities community of professors. Some will participate others will want to hang on to the proprietary model.

    Ninth, the bureaucrats in Victoria have no say in what textbooks will be assigned. That is a faculty decision. Faculty will decide themselves with or without their students’ input, which books to assign. Yes, textbooks vary widely, and slapped together works are usually not the best — but that includes many proprietary textbooks.

    Tenth, open texts are free online but students pay for the print version – not the +$150 charged by publishers but less than $30.

    In addition, with open texts, faculty can revise and update them whenever they want without waiting years for a new edition. So, open texts are invariably up-to-date. Some school texts can be more than 10 years old.

    And, finally I agree with Prof. Pettigrew that cutting tuition would be “sweet”. But I would add that using open textbooks will help us achieve that goal. With open text books you get what you pay for but with proprietary etexts, you pay, but you DON’T get . You pay but it expires after 180 days, you can’t highlight, can’t use text to speech, you can’t legally use it in another country; you can’t even show it to your spouse without breaking the law. Plus, when you use proprietary etexts you must allow open access to your computer by the publisher.

    All the best.

    Rory McGreal
    UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources
    Athabasca University