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No guarantee free texts useful

The province’s plan to offer post-secondary students free, online, open textbooks for the 40 most popular courses is raising some eyebrows in Nanaimo.

The province estimates up to 200,000 students could benefit from this move each year, savings hundreds of dollars a year on textbooks because these texts could be read online or downloaded at no cost. Faculty would also be able to modify and adapt the open textbooks to fit different classes and better meet local teaching needs.

Steve Beasley, executive director of the Vancouver Island University Students’ Union, said while anything that saves students money is positive, instructors will still have the ability to choose their own course materials and there is no guarantee that these texts will be used.

“This sounds like a boutique program to make it sound like the government is doing something about the affordability of post-secondary education,” he said.

Post-secondary courses do not have a set curriculum that is mandated by the government like in the public education system and this initiative could cross the line between the state ensuring public access to education and government dictating curriculum, said Beasley.

“Universities should not be controlled by the state in terms of what students should be learning,” he said.

If the province wants to help students, it could restore a student grant program or reduce the interest rates on student loans, Beasley added.

Joey Moore, a VIU sociology professor, sees a lot of potential in the initiative, provided those who create these texts are able to making a living wage from doing so.

“I think there’s a lot of possibilities with the open access movement,” he said. “The devil is in the details. I have my own frustrations with the costs of certain texts.”

Often companies come out with new editions each year despite only minimal changes and an introductory sociology text can cost around $100 new, which is cheap compared to some math or science texts, said Moore.

He said one major concern is that there would be pressure on professors from students to use a free text even if the instructor isn’t comfortable with it.

An open text would allow the instructor to modify the text to suit a particular class’s needs, but the instructor would have to have the time to do this, Moore added.

Once a list of courses to benefit from this initiative is developed, the textbooks will be created with input from faculty, institutions and publishers through a request for proposals coordinated by B.C. Campus, a publicly funded organization that aims to make higher education available to all. As a condition of the funding, the text would have a Creative Commons licence that makes it freely available to anyone to use, reuse and revise.

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