The changing face of education

Open textbook initiative comes to KPU.

By Tristan Johnston
[staff writer]

“Every semester, faculty asks themselves: ‘What source do I need?’”

Rajiv Jhangiani is a new psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and a proponent of open textbooks, which is a textbook that has an open copyright license, and available for free, or a very low cost.

“I think every professor experiences the same emails from students. ‘Will the previous edition be okay?’ And we see students choosing not to purchase textbooks primarily because of cost. Their grades suffer as a result,” he says.

Jhangiani believes that student performance will improve with open textbooks. “I think this is one of those rare win-win-win situations, for students most obviously there is cost savings, but that’s not the only benefit.”

“There’s access, so even students who’d normally buy a textbook, they can get them right away. There’s portability,” Jhangiani says, referring to ebook versions. “So students can read them on their iPad, computer, or get it in paper format if they want. There are benefits to faculty as well, being able to adapt their textbook to suit their course, embed your assignments, cut out sections you wouldn’t normally assign, and if there’s a section that needs improvement you can add to it. If something changes, you don’t have to wait for the 4-year publishing cycle, you can change it right away.”

There are a few qualities that a textbook has to meet in order for it to qualify as “open.” Jhangiani describes them as the “Five ‘r’s.” If you can retain it, reuse it, revise it, remix (taking multiple open sources) it, and redistribute the material. “If you get those five ‘r’s,” says Jhangiani, “Then it’s open.”

Michael Geist, an academic at the University of Ottawa who specializes in e-commerce and copyright law, believes that open textbooks are a great idea.

“I think they’re a great development, they set a different model for how textbooks can be, and they’re completely consistent with the current copyright model,” he says. When it comes to copyright law, there are already ways for instructors to access material for their students, although with many more restrictions than an open textbook would have.

“There are fair dealing rules that allow a certain amount to be copied,” Geist says, referring to professors who photocopy sections of “closed” textbooks for their students. “It’s a bit context dependent, some guidelines say up to a chapter, or 10 per cent of the work. Copying more than that, they likely lose the license to do that.”

Geist also notes that there’s no need to worry about digital rights management on electronic open textbooks, as their license disallows it.

The potential for a growing open textbook movement would have a clear impact on one group in particular: the paper textbook publishers. However, Jhangiani notes that they’re not “happy about anything.”

“Even if open textbooks didn’t exist, they would be unhappy with a dying industry. Several of them are coming out of bankruptcy, [and] it’s a very difficult business they’re in,” he says. “I think publishers for a while have realized that textbooks aren’t the unique selling feature. Certainly, the material in a textbook isn’t proprietary–it can be found from a variety of places if you know where to look.”

Many instructors like to use features that sometimes come with textbooks, such as online assignments that are available through certain math and science books, for example.

“But certainly, open textbooks are an existential threat to book publishers, and they’re all responding differently. Pearson has been trying to get into the open access space for a while now, but maybe not genuinely,” says Jhangiani. “Wiley have decided that in some ways, if they’re going to lose textbook income, they don’t want to lose it all, so they’ve produced open textbooks known as ‘Openstax.’”

Open textbooks could also be seen as a potential shift in the way people are able to access an education. Plenty of great information is available in libraries and on the internet. Some universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have posted entire lecture series for free on Youtube. Jhangiani agrees that there’s a shift, but with some reservations.

“Information is not just information transmission. These elite universities don’t just exist to give you information,” he says. “Formative feedback is very important. I don’t see the brick and mortar institutions going away, because [they have] tremendous value.”

“[And] of course, there’s no course credit or proof for watching a taped lecture.”

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