When Textbooks Become a Luxury

Ann M. Pearson

At San Jacinto College, we’re very good at celebrating our victories, including high rankings in lists for graduating minorities and veterans as well as our status as a top 10 finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize. We often commemorate, congratulate, analyze, and pause for a moment to reflect on what we’ve done to reach the milestones we have. But the key phrase there is for a moment. By no stretch do we bask in our own glory or ever rest on our laurels. The stakes are too high. We have students to mentor, classes to teach, and a world to change—one student at a time.

The incessant drive to make student success the answer to every question and the only rationale for our actions has led us to join in a promising movement across the nation in higher education to address the high costs of textbooks. When people hear anecdotal snippets that for some college students textbooks cost as much as tuition—or that a few students try to make a go of it without purchasing the required text because it was either pay the rent or buy the book—they may think, “Somebody oughta do something about that.” Well, we’re somebody. And what we’re doing is to design a pilot general studies associate degree program in which students will use all digital Open Educational Resources (OER), which are free and accessible online. Dean Mark Johnson, who is coordinating the pilot, touts one benefit being that with OER, “Faculty share their expertise and take the lead role as subject matter experts who choose, review, and create free and sharable course texts. More importantly, when our faculty use OER materials, they become heroes to students by removing financial barriers and creating equity in education in a way that’s never been done on such a large scale.”

I recently obtained my department chair’s approval to try using OER or open sources for a summer Later British Literature course. The class was fully online, and overwhelmingly the students approved of the no-textbook change. They still read—a lot—but the texts were from highly credible sites including the British Library, Poets.org, and Project Gutenberg.

An unexpected benefit was that many student reported hanging out on the sites from which the texts were taken and enjoyed seeing period pictures and other related texts. Wow—was that interested reading for the sake of learning? Well, what do you think about that?!

I determined that the exercise wouldn’t be about just the sources being free, which is certainly a boon. I was able to model for students how to search for and then properly cite credible, reliable sources, which opened a discussion on how to tell if websites weren’t authentic and what to do about it. The works we study in Later Brit Lit are all out of copyright, so using OER is less challenging than it can be in other disciplines. But all fields can begin conversations on using open sources to supplement other texts, if not eliminate the traditional print texts all together. Textbooks aren’t the evil other; they are and always have been tools for faculty and students to use together to augment learning. My hope is that the OER movement will incentivize the textbook industry to become more creatively responsive to the needs of students and faculty. I anticipate a dynamic wave of faculty-student exchanges that will continue to improve and embellish these first ambitious efforts to reduce textbook costs. These are exciting times.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on February 21, 2017.