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Online learning could restrict students’ access to affordable textbooks

Higher education’s transition toward remote instructions could undermine accessibility to course materials and textbook affordability, advocates said.

By Marilyn Chavez-Martinez

Aug. 3, 2020 8:57 p.m.

Textbook affordability advocates worry that the transition to online learning will limit access to course materials for low-income students.

Many academic institutions have had to transition to at least partial remote instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although UCLA chose to offer a mix of in-person and online classes, only 8% of classes will be held in-person in the fall, and students may be dependent on internet access.

Sixty-six percent of students surveyed by the United States Public Interest Research Group did not buy their assigned course materials due to cost, according to a June report.

Out of nearly 4,000 students surveyed across 83 institutions, 25% reported needing to work extra hours to afford course materials and 11% skipped buying meals to afford textbooks, the report found.

Cailyn Nagle, co-author of the USPIRG report, said that as the pandemic continues, there is a concern that students will lose access to the necessary course resources due to financial instability.

Campus organizations have made efforts to address this affordability gap.

The Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Academic Affairs Commission offers a Books for Bruins scholarship of up to $100 to help students purchase course materials, and has worked with faculty to include open-access course materials, among other measures.

However, Naomi Riley, the current USAC president and former AAC commissioner, said in March that the office’s approaches are “Band-Aid solutions” to larger problems from the textbook industry, such as the frequent release of new textbook editions without major changes and charging for digital platforms where students do their homework.

Riley, a fourth-year political science student, said the issue of textbook affordability has gotten worse since the university transitioned to remote instruction. The AAC saw an increase in the demand for its scholarship and ultimately awarded triple the amount of scholarships that it has ever awarded, she added.

With additional funding donated from other offices, the AAC gave scholarships to more than 760 students to cover the cost of course materials, Riley said.

She added that she was disappointed to see professors ask for costly materials during an unusually stressful quarter.

“We’re seeing that even in a global pandemic, there were students who were still having to pay $100 for an access code, that were still having to pay for their textbooks.” Riley said. “It’s ridiculous, but also very in line with the practices that we currently have.”

Riley said her office will continue to make sure these resources are accessible, adding that although academic policy is a slow-moving process, small measures will still help students.

The UCLA Store partnered with Common Collaboration and Learning Environment, or CCLE, to pilot a program that helps students compare prices and formats for their assigned course materials, the UCLA Store said in a statement. The UCLA Store hopes to expand the pilot program in the fall based on summer performance, the statement read.

Riley said she is concerned about the rising costs of textbooks as well as additional costs from access codes, which are electronic log-ons that students must pay for to access course materials online, as well as other academic materials.

In early July, UCLA Library started the Pilot Emergency Temporary Digitization on Request Service to provide more remote resources by digitizing books and journals for graduate students, early career researchers and faculty to use.

The library plans to expand the content offered through PETDOR and the number of people eligible to use it, according to the PETDOR FAQ website.

UCLA Library also leads the Affordable Course Materials Initiative, which awards select faculty $1,000 to $2,500 to shift their assigned course material to free or low-cost resources, according to the ACMI website.

Prabhdeep Rai, the UCLA chapter chair of the California Public Interest Research Group, said CALPIRG has worked closely with USAC and the AAC office to reach out to professors and advocate for the use of open access materials. CALPIRG’s textbook affordability campaign is also working towards a UC-wide grant program to encourage professors to move towards open access textbooks.

CALPIRG also helped collect data for USPIRG reports, and lobbies on the national and state level for open access textbooks and textbook affordability initiatives, Rai said.

The matter of textbook affordability is personal to Rai, since she lives in a rural area with poor internet connection. In order to avoid frequent interruptions to her classes, she moved back to Los Angeles, away from her family which is still working through the pandemic.

“This issue has been real, but COVID has made it so much more real, and we want to make sure we continue to have our fellow student’s backs and that we’re securing more affordable textbooks for them into the long-term so their education is accessible.”

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Marilyn Chavez-Martinez | News and outreach senior staff
Chavez-Martinez was the 2020-2021 Outreach Director. She was previously an assistant news editor managing the campus politics beat and still writes for the Daily Bruin news section occasionally. She is also a fourth-year English and Economics student at UCLA.
Chavez-Martinez was the 2020-2021 Outreach Director. She was previously an assistant news editor managing the campus politics beat and still writes for the Daily Bruin news section occasionally. She is also a fourth-year English and Economics student at UCLA.
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