Open-source texts gaining in popularity

By Grace Dicker
The Scene staff

Besides tuition, one of the biggest expenses college students face is textbooks. The price for the access code runs from $95 to $125.

But Forest Park math professor Seth Daugherty, 35, doesn’t believe a costly printed textbook is the key to being successful in a math course.

“I started using open-source textbooks in spring 2014,” said Daugherty, who had learned about them at a conference.

“They are flexible. They are portable. You can look at it on your smartphone or print it out. The book is also less than $20 if you wanted to get that. It’s a PDF file.”

Open-source textbooks are licensed under an open copyright license that allows users to download them for free. The books came out of the open-education resources movement, which makes information more accessible to the general public at little to no cost.

Open-source textbooks differ from traditional textbooks in that they don’t come with a hefty cost and are more portable via technology. St. Louis Community College students typically pay about $20 for a math textbook.

These open-source textbooks can be downloaded primarily through OER Commons, at OER stands for open educational resources. The website was started in 2007.

Daugherty emphasized that the teachers are not doing instruction without printed textbooks.

At least four Forest Park faculty members are using open-source textbooks, and three more plan to use them in the fall, Daugherty said.

Math professor Brian Carter, 44, plans to begin using them.

“I was hesitant about the backlash of the bookstore,” he said. “I’m not on the book publishers’ side.”

Like all professors, they have no control over the cost of the textbooks and often think the price is too high.

Carter has been teaching mathematics since 1998.

“We need to work together to serve the students,” Carter said.

Open-source textbooks have their benefits and drawbacks.

Carter cited cost savings, but he said one drawback is that a typical open-source textbook “is like a rough draft. We aren’t sure who’s writing the book.”

Although Carter has reservations, says its staff evaluates the works and that the content follows high standards.

OER Commons says it gives users a single point of access to the highest quality information from around the world.

Since these resources are ‘open,’ they are available for educational use, and many hold Creative Commons licenses that allow them to be repurposed, modified, and adapted for a diverse array of local contexts,” the OER Commons website states.

Forest Park students have different views on the concept.

Restrictions by book publishers and the authority they have over faculty members keep many students in the dark over open-source textbooks. But with more and more professors using them, their popularity is expected to grow.

Computer science major Natasha Love, 19, has used open-source college math textbooks in the past.

“I don’t use them now, but I do think the students could benefit,” she said.

Occupational therapy major William Reynolds, 31, prefers not to use open-source textbooks.

“Maybe it’s an individual thing,” he said. “I personally don’t like them. I prefer physical textbooks.”

Christy Hart, 62, auxiliary services manager of the Forest Park bookstore, says the store faces big changes in the way it functions.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said. “The move to online is scary. Online is helpful for portability. Some publishers go straight to the students (to get them to purchase the book). Students have more flexibility in the bookstore.”

Hart, who says she supports open-source textbooks, added: “In the academic world, textbooks take years to make. I’m all for free.

Access to free education will change the world. I think it’s great the faculty is trying to make everything as accessible as they can.”

She also weighed in on the prices publishers charge for textbooks.

“Publishing is a business,” she said. “There are three main publishers. They control all the content. It’s competitive because they are struggling to find their way in the digital world.”

Hart thinks that the publishers price the books too highly for students.

Within the next few semesters at STLCC, Daugherty predicts that open-source textbooks will become much more widespread.