Tuesday, March 28

UCLA Library to expand program promoting free, online course material


UCLA, following the lead of many universities, is expanding an initiative to promote free, online course materials for students amid rising textbook costs.

The Affordable Course Materials Initiative, a UCLA Library-led project which launched in 2013 as a pilot program, will become an official program fall 2015. The program, which UCLA recently decided to continue, seeks to encourage faculty members to compile online resources in a textbook-like form so they can be freely accessed by professors and students.

The library will send out applications for the program this week, and instructors will be able to apply for a grant of up to $2,500 to help find resources and adjust syllabi and assignments.

Since 2013, the UCLA Library has awarded $27,500 to 23 instructors. The library estimates that students enrolled in awarded courses saved more than $160,000 collectively since the program began.

Sharon Farb, an associate university librarian at UCLA who started the project, said she thinks that open, free resources aim to provide equal access to course materials, which can otherwise be expensive.

Several years ago, the UCLA Library started to collaborate with the Undergraduate Students Association Council and the UCLA Store by examining course readers and providing a database of licenses the library already owned. This allowed the bookstore to not pay permission fees for course reader materials the library already had rights to.

“That’s how we started on this path of both hearing what the problem was from the students and also seeing some ways that the different moving parts of UCLA, if worked together, could improve this situation more than any of us could independently,” Farb said.

Open-source textbooks have become more popular as textbook prices have increased 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to the nonpartisan, congressional Government Accountability Office. UCLA admissions estimates that books and supplies will cost each undergraduate student about $1,383 per academic year for 2015-2016.

“A traditional textbook … is usually published by commercial publishers, which means it’s never free, and it’s usually too expensive and they get revised in minimal ways constantly so that students are always being asked to get the new edition even if only a minimal part of it has changed,” Farb said.

But some members of the publishing community said they think textbook publishers are making the necessary adjustments for students.

David Anderson, executive director for higher education for the Association of American Publishers, which represents 300 publishers, said he thinks textbooks are expensive to produce and labor-intensive, so they should reflect the costs of labor and copyrights.

Textbooks are revised every three to four years on average and textbooks on fast-changing subjects such as law or technology can require more revisions, Anderson said. He added that he thinks the consolidation of textbook publishers into a few companies is not a cause for high price adjustments. Instead, he said he thinks rising costs are part of a natural process.

Anderson said he neither supports nor opposes the growth of open-source textbooks, and he doesn’t think open-source textbooks threaten the traditional textbook market, since it is also transitioning into providing more digital materials.

Peter Nonacs, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor, taught his classes without textbooks for more than a decade.

“We have a world-class library, so I could go to the actual studies and have the students read the actual papers rather than the textbook author’s interpretation of research,” Nonacs said.

Nonacs added that he thinks students took a while to adjust to the materials because some were not used to reading original sources.

But in online evaluations, he said many students said they liked not having to buy textbooks and thought the open-source materials were particularly interesting.

“(Open-source materials) don’t go down to science from the top, but rather they invite students to explicitly be a part of the scientific community and into the body of information that scientists actually use,” said Daniel Smith, a third-year ecology, behavior and evolution student who took Nonacs’ EEB 100: “Introduction to Ecology and Behavior” in winter 2014.

Morgan Montelius, a fourth-year biology student who took the same class, said he thinks open-source materials fit nicely with the specificity of some upper-division science courses, but he would be hesitant in depending on them for nonscience courses. In math, he said as an example, he thinks a traditional textbook would be more comprehensive and better organized for students.

UCLA modeled its initiative after programs at other universities.

Steven Bell, an associate university librarian for Temple University who started a program UCLA modeled, said he thinks finding open resources online is becoming easier for faculty.

More university libraries and the legislatures are facilitating the transition into open resources, said Laura Quilter, a copyright and information policy librarian who works on a similar project at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Farb said she remains optimistic about the future of the program.

“The more partners we get, the bigger we can go with it,” Farb said. “We’ll use all the resources we have to grow it, and we’ll see what happens.”

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  • GalleryP

    Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t paying faculty members to adopt certain “preferred” course materials independent of their merit/usefulness to their students a questionable practice? Shouldn’t faculty members choose what is “best for their students” independently their personal financial interests?

    • Nishii

      Why assume they’re picking materials “independent of their merit/usefulness”? I would assume that faculty are selecting materials specific to their curricula, just not prepackaged and produced by textbook publishers. It does require work to put such a package of readings together and also, if the course was originally designed with a textbook in mind, it will need revision, which is why providing the incentive is a good idea.

      Some faculty are truly profiting at students’ expense when they are also authors of expensive textbooks, and then require students taking their classes to buy their books.

      • GalleryP

        Well, if you are not bothered by the ethics of being paid to select certain material, you should probably know that this seems to me to be against the law in California. Per 66406.7 of the Education Code ” . . . An adopter (faculty) at an institution of higher education shall not demand or receive anything of value, including . . . deposit of money . . . for adopting specific course materials . . .”

        • Nishii

          They’re not being paid to adopt specific course materials, just ones that don’t cost as much as a textbook.

          • GalleryP

            So you think it would be fine for a commercial venture to pay a faculty member to assign something (not specified) from that commercial venture? I don’t, and neither did the legislators in California. Using any new course material requires work by the faculty member. This is work for which they should not get paid beyond their normal salary. (And, FWIW, your ” not cost as much as a textbook” comment is imprecise. Some textbooks are free, and some “OER” materials have “user fees.”