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B.C. makes free online textbooks available

A government agency is recruiting faculty to review and eventually to write texts for the most popular courses.


Postsecondary students in British Columbia may get a bit of a break when it comes time to buy their textbooks this fall. In the first move of its kind in Canada, the B.C. government said it will make available up to 20 free and open online textbooks for some of the most popular first- and second-year university and college courses.

There’s no guarantee that faculty will choose to assign the new textbooks, but proponents of the project are hoping that rigorous quality control measures and a little nudging from students will win them over. The textbooks also will be available to institutions, faculty and students across Canada to use at no charge.

The B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology launched the initiative in 2012, promising to offer students open textbooks in 40 of the most popular subject areas. It has committed $1 million to fund the venture. BCcampus, the provincial agency overseeing the project, is rolling it out in phases. It recently released a list of the 40 most highly enrolled first- and second-year subject areas for which it is sourcing textbooks. It also identified 10 existing open textbooks, mainly first-year introductory texts. The agency issued a call for proposals to faculty members and teaching assistants to peer review the books and is making available an evaluation rubric to use for the reviews.

Mary Burgess, director of curriculum services and applied research at BCcampus, said the agency has received about 30 or 40 applications to review the digital texts. The agency plans to select four reviewers per textbook. Each reviewer will receive a $250 honorarium. In the meantime, BCcampus is looking for additional open textbooks and hopes to have between 15 and 20 reviewed and available by the fall.

Ms. Burgess said reaction from faculty members and administrators has been largely positive, but some have raised concerns about the quality of open textbooks. “That’s why we’re doing the review,” she said.

In the next phase of the project, BCcampus plans to call for proposals in September to adapt and modify existing open textbooks. And in the third phase, to launch in December, BCcampus will ask for bids to create new open textbooks in subject areas where none exist. The agency wants several faculty members to collaborate on writing a single textbook, with the help of instructional designers and professional editors. It plans to house the texts on an online repository.

An open textbook is typically published under an open copyright licence that allows students to read it online or download it for free. Digital open-source texts can be printed in whole or in part and bound for as little as $30, whereas traditional textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars apiece. The B.C. government has estimated the project could save students up to $1,000 a year. Textbooks placed under an open Creative Commons copyright licence also allow instructors to add to or modify the content.

BCcampus established a subcommittee of faculty members, deans, students, librarians and others to advise it on the process. The agency plans to hold workshops for faculty members to spread the word about the initiative. Still, professors in the province won’t be obliged to use the open texts, and Ms. Burgess said it will be up to students to advocate for change. The project has already caught the attention and support of student groups, even some from outside the province.

Tony Bates, a consultant specializing in e-learning, distance education and educational technologies, called the project “a shrewd move” by the B.C. government – the project has the potential to save students “significant costs.” But, he said the benefits of open textbooks go beyond cost savings. Instructors can choose parts of the text they want and disregard the rest, and they can customize them to fit the needs of their students. “It gives them flexibility,” he said. Eventually, the texts could include online activities, quizzes, video clips and other multimedia resources. “I think there’s a lot of potential here.”

Dr. Bates added that it has always been a challenge to convince professors to adopt open educational resources because they are either unaware that such resources exist or are skeptical of them. He said efforts by BCcampus to engage professors in reviewing and writing the textbooks will increase the likelihood of them being widely used, especially if BCcampus can get professors from some of the large institutions involved. “If I’m an instructor at a college and there’s a textbook with SFU and UBC behind it, I’d be more inclined to use that,” he said.

Dianne Crisp, psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and a member of the BCcampus subcommittee, said open textbooks “compare quite favourably” to traditional texts in terms of quality but they don’t yet have the supplementary online materials that some traditional publishers include with their printed texts.

“I think eventually there will be a large buy-in from faculty,” she said. “I don’t think texts as they are now will exist in five or 10 years.” She predicted they will be popular with students too, not solely because of cost: “Students live in the digital age. They don’t live in the textbook age.”

The project is modelled on similar ones in the U.S., including California. In 2012, the state legislature passed a bill to create openly licensed textbooks for 50 of the most popular junior-level courses as well as an online library to host the books. Another project under way in Washington State,, which has created digital textbooks for 81 courses, was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the state government. Launched in 2011, it estimates that it has saved students $5.5 million (US). B.C.’s is the first large-scale, publicly funded project in Canada.

BCcampus would like other provinces to join its initiative. Ms. Burgess said the agency has had “lengthy and positive” discussions with Alberta although that province hasn’t committed any funds to the project. The textbooks will be available to institutions in all provinces regardless of whether they participate. “That’s the glory of open,” she said. “These resources are for everybody.”

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  1. Niru / May 22, 2013 at 12:43

    Very thoughtful and progressive move – all academics should welcome it.

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