Pavel Zemliansky, Ph.D.
University of Central Florida
In July of this year, I attended a two-day meeting of the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), in Washington, DC. The meeting was devoted to the problem of rising textbook costs and to finding ways of addressing these increases. I was invited to the event as a co-editor (with Charlie Lowe) of the open access series of peer-reviewed composition volumes Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. The meeting was sponsored by the publisher Flat World Knowledge and attended by its president Eric Frank. Participants also included Creative Commons’ Director of Global Learning Cable Green, several faculty members from DC-area colleges and universities, and leaders of area student groups concerned about the cost of textbooks.
According to the Student PIRGs’ website, an average student spends about nine hundred dollars per academic year on textbooks, and textbook costs are rising four times the rate of inflation. The primary purpose of the meeting was to launch a campaign that the organizers call “The Textbook Rebellion.” The campaigners are currently on a national tour promoting the cause of stopping the rising costs of college textbooks and educating faculty and students about open access and low-cost alternatives available to them.The campaign employs some clever tools and tactics, from the “Mr. $200 Textbook” character to social media and online petitions.
During the first day of the two-day event, attendees gave presentations on their work in the open educational resource movement and how the educational products they create can help alleviate the problem of textbook costs without sacrificing the quality of those educational materials. For example, when presenting on Writing Spaces, I emphasized the idea that all contribution to the series are peer-reviewed by experts in the field of rhetoric and composition and that we, as editors, see the peer review process as a necessary condition forestablishing and maintaining the quality and reputation of our publications within the profession.The second day of the meeting was devoted to the development of strategies and tactics for “The Textbook Rebellion,” including the collaborative writing of a petition to be distributed nation-wide by e-mail. The complete text of the petition can be found on the organization’s website.
Clearly, any time there is conversation about open access educational resources, intellectual property issues are bound to come up. Using alternative models of creating and disseminating educational resources inevitably demands an approach to intellectual property that is different from that used by mainstream commercial publishers. However, at this meeting, the primary focus was the reduction of textbook costs, and the explicit discussion of IP issues played only a secondary role. In fact, as the meeting progressed, the group reached a consensus that in order for the “rebellion” to be successful, it must carry a single and simple message, and that this message should be about lowering the costs of textbooks for students.It was also agreed that, when recommending a non-commercial alternative educational resource, priority should be given to open access resources. When such open-access resources are not available, other, low-cost alternatives should be considered. The reasoning behind this approach is that the campaign would both educate faculty and students about the availability of free or low-cost textbooks while simultaneously putting pressure on commercial publishers to reign in the costs of their products.
As a university professor, I found attending the meeting to be useful, and not only because I was able to contribute to a worthy cause. The event also allowed me to hear the opinions of some very engaged and articulate students about the costs of textbooks. It also forced me to compare and juxtapose what we, as faculty, value in a college textbook. To be sure, most of our students are interested in learning with high-quality resources, but in this time of economic uncertainty, the cost factor seems to trump a lot of other considerations. These other considerations may include things like textbook supplements (CDs, test compilations, and so on) that might seem very important or necessary to the instructor but that also significantly raise the cost of a textbook.
The student PIRGs and The Textbook Rebellion have certainly taken up a worthy cause. Textbook costs are a serious concern for both students and faculty, and high-quality free or low cost alternatives are becoming increasingly available in many disciplines. In the early stages of educating the public about these issues, creating and spreading unified and simple messages about the cost of educational materials is important. However, as the movement matures and develops, it will be very important for its leaders to include such larger issues as intellectual property and maintaining high quality of free and low-cost educational resources in their campaigns. If the goal of the movement is to bring about change by educating the public about this issue, then such education would be most effective and long-lasting if the problem is examined in all its complexity.
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