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Commentary: For cheaper textbooks, an open source approach

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As the semester ramps up, we students have probably shelled out considerable amounts of money for this semester’s textbooks. 

Even if you were able to avoid the wallet-draining trip to the McGill Bookstore, you likely spent more than you would have liked.

Research has shown that fewer and fewer students are actually buying new print editions of textbooks, opting instead for e-books, used versions of print textbooks, illegal downloads, and even imported textbooks from abroad.  To make up for this loss in sales, publishers continue to raise the prices of textbooks at an average rate of $2 per year.  As prices continue to rise, students will increasingly seek alternatives to buying new textbooks. 

According to normal economic assumptions, this cycle could can only continue for so long before textbook publishers raise the price so high that people stop buying their products, and they either go out of business, or have to reduce their prices to an affordable amount.  However, textbooks represent an interesting market because of their price-inelasticity. Professors assign textbooks and students have no choice but to buy the ones that are required.  Although there are alternatives, students are often forced to buy new textbooks from a bookstore either because new editions are published frequently and render used textbooks obsolete, or because no online versions are available. 

Buying used, rented, or other substitutes for new textbooks when possible can help students cope with the exorbitant price of textbooks, but these methods will only exacerbate the larger problem of rising textbook prices in the long run by taking revenue away from textbook publishers.  A long-term solution to consider is open educational resources—free, high-quality, openly licensed online course materials and curricula.  Open educational resources are on the rise, and could potentially solve the problem of high textbook prices by completely de-commodifying the information that textbook publishers charge such high prices for. 

Open educational resources (OER) work by publishing resources in the public domain with the goal of making information accessible to all.  Although OER are not for profit, many authors are willing to publish their work for all to use.  One reason is that the actual authors of textbooks usually only get a very small cut of each textbook sale, with  most of the profit going to the textbook publisher, as per the Daily Illini. In addition, by allowing free and open access, OERs pffer authors the opportunity to reach many a larger audience than if their work was published in a textbook with strict copyright laws. 

Stanford University has experimented with a type of OER called Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), which are essentially free courses, with all of the content, readings, and lectures available online.  According to an article in the New York Times, Stanford had an enrolment of 160,000 students in only one MOOC alone.  The Massachussetts Institute of Technology, (MIT) too, has also been offering its course content online for free for over 10 years.  MIT launched its OpenCourseWare website in 2002, and has since put its entire curriculum—including video lectures, presentations, and course materials—online for free.  MIT has also begun using MOOCs, and established a joint venture with Harvard University for open educational resources, which now has 12 participating universities, including McGill.

Not only do OERs reduce the burden of paying for textbooks, but they also make knowledge more available by allowing everybody to access the tools of education. In addition, by sharing information freely, we can remove the middlemen that are the publishing companies, and save everybody money.  McGill has experimented with open educational resources and MOOCs. The introduction of OERs at other universities has been extremely successful, and its further integration at McGill can only benefit students.

Julie Vanderperre

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