A Graduate-Student Teacher Perspective on Open Textbooks

Posted June 26, 2014

By Francis Yannaco

One of the first projects I worked on as a student representative of APA Division 2 (Teaching of Psychology) was a summary of resources for teachers of psychology. We reviewed some of the best books on teaching with tech and some great online archives of psychological teaching resources. The information in the books was helpful, plentiful, relevant, and up-to-date. There was only one small problem with the resources for us: we had just a few weeks to read and review them and the process of accessing them too would take just a few weeks through library loan. Altogether, the dozens of books would cost thousands of dollars through a store and would then only be accessible by a single reader at a time. The solution to this problem came in the form of eBook copies available on my university’s online library system, which has a good-sized catalog of all types of texts – except student textbooks. This shortcoming caught my interest as a student who always avoided the bookstore.

Like me, many students are opting out of the bookstore shopping-spree. A recent poll found that 65% of students have skipped the purchase of a book because of the cost (US PIRGF Education Fund, http://senate.rutgers.edu/PIRGTextbookCostsReport.pdf). As an undergraduate, I settled for earlier-edition copies ($3-4 shipped) or I downloaded the PDF of the text from a popular India-based student message board (many students in India are also unable to afford the texts). Now as a graduate student, almost all of the required texts are freely accessible from the library’s Online Research Databases. To complete the circle, I am now in the role of teacher and once again concerned about textbook costs, this time for my students. Will the cost of my textbook choice burden students’ family budgets? Will some fail my course because of it? With libraries offering only hardcopies, what are the alternatives for access?

The problem: too many students need access to too many expensive books simultaneously. The current solution is to make every single student pay huge individual costs. We can look to how education handles a similar problem to see an alternative approach. When academic journals went electronic, academic researchers needed to access many expensive books, journals, and articles simultaneously. The solution was simple and effective: institutions pooled together resources to pay for shared access to the Online Research Databases I mentioned earlier. If you are not completely familiar with them, they are essentially online libraries full of donated works written by the very academics who access them. What a fantastically eloquent solution. Why not apply it to textbooks?

Unfortunately, Online Research Databases are obscenely expensive, despite providing access to works they do not own and despite the fact that they do not compensate the authors of those works. The catch in Online Research Databases is that they only become economically feasible when academia comes to a shared agreement to pool its resources together to access them. This philanthropic approach to solving problems is the essence of academia; it is what brings art to the streets, what saves lives in the emergency room, and what will provide open, free textbooks to the students of the world. The solution to academia’s textbook crisis is academia.

Stewart Brand coined the now-famous slogan of open source advocates: “information wants to be free.” In the software world, the concept is still revolutionary, but for academics, the phrase borders on trite. The academic community lives by a very simple task: to record and share information with the world. It is time for academia to start living up to this purpose in the classroom, starting with a catalog of comprehensive open textbooks for every course. The modern textbook model demands that those with the least contribute the most to a system that privatizes public information and sells it back to the academic workers responsible for producing it. If information really does want to be free, then the current textbook model is a prison. Academic psychology needs to quit its job as warden and become an information advocate, starting with projects like Noba and Wikibooks.

[Francis Yannaco is a PhD student of Psychology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His early graduate work focused on ethnic identity development in college students, while his current focus is on children’s human rights and their access to decision-making, education, and health. As a student representative of APA’s Division 2 (Teaching of Psychology) he hopes to help promote greater online collaboration between teachers.]