Open educational resources or traditional textbooks?
3 experts weigh in

Textbook StackAn August 15, 2017 article in the Lansing State Journal, “LCC takes aim at pricey textbooks, offers free course materials”, shared a decision by Lansing Community College to offer students freely available open educational resources (OER) rather than traditional textbooks during the fall 2017 semester. Sixty-four professors in 24 courses will be taking part in the initiative.

The decision to use OER materials, said Regina Gong, a librarian and open educational resources project manager at LCC, was based on the College’s desire to reduce the “cost for incoming students who have to take introductory courses before moving on to higher end classes.”

In a recent discussion about the article in TAA’s LinkedIn group, three experts weighed in on LCC’s OER initiative, answering the question: “How many of you are working at schools considering or adopting this model? Thoughts?”

Freelance editor, researcher and writer Elsa Peterson: “The article says, ‘total savings for LCC students since 2015 will surpass $1 million by the end of the fall semester’. That’s more than $1 million that would be going to bookstores, publishers, and authors. As a freelance editor, I am witness to the corrections a textbook gets at every stage of the editing and production cycle. For these free resources, who is responsible for fact checking, editing, proofreading? What level of quality do they provide to the student?”

Sondra Ricar, an adjunct instructor at Bellevue College: “I go both ways on this one. At one community college where I teach my course has been moved into the OER textbook category. Honestly, there are not that many OER texts for American History and they are not that great. I’m doing more supplements than I did before.

The world history book I use elsewhere is coming out with a new edition, two years after the previous one. And it will be going for more than $200. I cannot justify asking students to pay for something most will use once because they are taking a General Ed requirement. The American Government texts I used to use would come out with new editions yearly and again, they were more than $150 each.

I am aware of the fact that this is a vicious circle. The more expensive the books are, the more likely the publishers want regular new editions because the more likely students are renting them or buying them used, where the publishers and authors make nothing. I get that. But something has to give here.”

Alex Janes, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School: “The article says that some of the professors are writing their own textbooks and giving them away for free. I don’t know many faculty who are that well paid. Authors rarely get rich from writing textbooks and there is a tacit subsidy already from their educational institution if they are tenured. I agree with Sondra Ricar that something needs to change. Music and film have gone down the advertiser pays business model route, but this doesn’t seem to have worked well for publishing so far. I also think Elsa Peterson makes a valid point. My own textbook was reviewed by a number of other academics in the field and the editing, permissions and proofreading phase of the project was significant, I don’t see how free versions of a textbook will be able to make use of a lot of content legally without going through the permissions element, for example. There is a high cost to this.

However, I also understand the issues with expecting students to pay more money for their learning materials. In the UK, the increases in tuition fees have made this a major issue for our students. The problem is that knowledge does have a value, try asking a lawyer, a tax advisor, or a management consultant to give away their knowledge for free!”

What are your thoughts on OER vs. traditional textbooks? Share your comments below.

About Kim Pawlak

Kim Pawlak is Director of Publishing & Operations for the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA). She has been writing about the textbook and academic authoring and publishing industry for 20 years.