Making textbooks free

It’s no secret that a college education costs big bucks. Textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars and as more students turn to rental sites or resort to blindly navigating a class bookless, some instructors are reworking their syllabuses to offer free e-textbooks and two Orange Coast College film students are investigating the high costs in a documentary production class.

Librarian Lori Cassidy is working to implement more free e-textbooks at Orange Coast College by integrating open educational resources, or OER, into classes one syllabus at a time. OER are freely accessible, openly licensed text or other digital media that are useful for teaching purposes and the growing movement against big textbook publishers or what some OER advocates are calling the “textbook cartel.”

Last spring, 21-year-old film major Bryan Harris was disturbed to overhear classmates talking about a pirate textbook download website and soon found himself falling down a rabbit hole of articles pointing to textbook publishers and their twisted marketing tactics.

“I saw that students have to turn to this black market just to be able to afford their classes and I just don’t think that’s right,” Harris said.

A summer’s worth of research eventually led Harris into his fall semester film documentary class with a big idea to find the answer to the question: why are textbooks so expensive?

So Harris along with classmate Evan Waugh, a 28-year-old film major, decided to find out by focusing on how students are affected by the inelasticity of the textbook market in their short documentary.

“As the price goes up, demand still goes up,” Waugh said.

To Harris, it felt like fate when Cassidy walked into his classroom and pitched the idea of OER and textbook prices to the class.

“With Bryan’s film, I’m hoping to get the student voice out there,” Cassidy said.

The current fall semester offered seven classes with free digital course materials but Cassidy is working to expand that list. As the OER project grant coordinator, Cassidy has experienced many “growing pains” in creating a full online library of textbooks for OCC students to access as she is spearheading the bulk of the project on her own, she said.

Cassidy is planning on posting the list of free e-textbooks on the front page of the library website soon, likely next spring semester.

She has been able to educate and convince a handful of OCC instructors to restructure their classes around a new, free textbook to ensure equal access for all students. Although, it’s not an easy process to convince an instructor to swap out a book they’ve already used for years and rewrite their entire class and syllabus around it, Cassidy said.

Thanks to the AB-798 grant, or the College Textbook Affordability Act, some instructors were reimbursed for the time they spent on their own clocks restructuring their classes to become equally accessible for all. The rewriting of classes can take up to 60 hours, Cassidy said.

Cassidy is currently working with the Architecture department to make all of their textbooks free through OER.

“I think we’re seeing the beginning of a shift. It’s exciting,” Film and Video department chair Erik Forssell said. “If we can help students accomplish education as economically as possible, why wouldn’t we?”

There’s the undeniable benefit of lower cost for students but teachers see a larger advantage in the opportunity to personalize the textbooks they use.

“(Instructors) can sort of adapt it to their own needs, maybe even taking from several sources and giving the students exactly what they need for their class,” Waugh said. “It goes back to their whole philosophy of teaching - all about making it more about the student and individualizing it. That’s what got me excited about the whole project.”

OER aims to lighten financial stress and the weight of our backpacks for college students nationwide.

If you or anyone you know has paid or avoided an outrageous textbook price, Harris and Waugh want to hear from you at textbookdoc@gmail.com.

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