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UVic students make push for open textbooks

Student society estimates open textbooks will save UVic students $100,000 in 2017
Maxwell Nicholson holds a sign inviting UVic students to put the dollar amount of how much they spent at their last visit to the UVic Bookstore.

The high cost of post secondary textbooks is hurrying the advent of free textbooks though the online model of open educational resources (OER).

On Thursday and Friday of last week Maxwell Nicholson, the campaign and community relations director of the University of Victoria Student Society, and UVSS director at large Carl Haynes greeted students with their #Textbookbroke promotion as they exited the UVic Bookstore.

Students could post the dollar amount from their purchase on a whiteboard and pose with it on social media for a chance to win $300 towards textbooks.

“We’re trying to raise awareness of the malpractice of how [textbook] publishers stifle competition to protect profits, forcing students to lose tons of money from an unnecessary update,” Nicholson said.

At the same time, UVSS is touting the financial benefits and the altruistic teaching-learning concept of OER (by making people aware of sites such as BC Open Campus (

The UVSS projects that open textbooks will save UVic students $100,000 in 2017.

South of the border it’s causing a big stir, with even the Wall Street Journal covering OER’s threat to the $7 billion industry.

At UVic, administration supported the creation of a new OER strategy committee which banded together faculty and staff from across the school.

Neil Wedin is the course materials manager for the UVic Bookstore and is one of three co-chairs for UVic’s OER strategy committee, with Janni Aragon, a political science professor specializing in technology integrated learning (TIL), and Lisa Petrachenko, the Associate University Librarian, Learning and Research Services.

Wedin can’t comment on the set price of textbooks his store sells but has a unique insight after one year on the committee.

“What we realized is there are professors who are using OER and may not necessarily tell the bookstore, so there were cases we don’t know what [educational resource] professors were using,” Wedin said. “The goal from the bookstore is to have a collaborative relationship with library and TEL to make material available.”

He added a lot of faculty don’t know what’s available, and that’s another area the committee is looking at.

There are in fact so few examples of free texts replacing formerly expensive ones at UVic that both Wedin and Nicholson point to the Earth and Ocean Sciences 120 course. EOS 120 switched from a textbook worth $123.50 last semester to one offered free through the BC Open Textbook Project. It represents a combined savings of about $12,000 for students in the course.

Moving forward, Nicholson, an economics lab instructor, is actually assisting on an OER textbook for Economics 103. The course is set to use the OER version in September, one that 800 students enrol in annually.

“Academically, universities are catching up to trade schools that are far ahead in using OER textbooks successfully,” said Nicholson.

While many have heard of OER and are excited by the concept of free textbooks, a large number of students are still unaware of their options.

“In the case of the [Earth and Ocean Sciences] textbook, it’s free by visiting the website, yet some students show up here to get it,” Wedin said. “We direct students where to find it, and there is always a few students who want it printed for highlighting, or because they don’t like the digital version.”

One thing Wedin has learned is there’s still a general comfort level with the printed textbook in the world of online books. Hence Etexts, which have been around for years, don’t sell particularly well. Etexts cost about 50 to 60 per cent of the print version (although Etexts aren’t available for all books and subscriptions generally last six to 18 months).

Printing costs five cents per sheet, or $22.50 for the earth and ocean sciences book.

Bookstore staff caution all students to assess the digital version before they print the entire book.