SGA, MassPIRG work together on open source textbook initiative

By Stuart Foster

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

Members of the Student Government Association and MassPIRG are seeking further support from the University of Massachusetts Provost of Academic Affairs Katherine Newman for the W.E.B. Du Bois Library’s Open Education Initiative.

The OEI, which has been operating for six years, provides UMass professors with $1,000 grants to write their own textbooks and syllabi using information which has an open copyright license.

“Our goal this semester is to get 10 to 15 professors to sign onto Open Education,” said Chris Earls, the SGA’s secretary of University policy and a senior political science and economics major.

Earls and Matthew Martin, coordinator of MassPIRG’s Affordable Textbooks Campaign, wrote an open letter to Newman in which they argued that open source textbooks were an affordable solution to the rising costs of college textbooks.

“According to the College Board, students spend an average of $1,200 on books and supplies each year,” read the open letter, which was endorsed by the SGA Senate on Jan. 25.

The letter said the $1,000 grant offered by the OEI to professors was “meager” compared to the amount of labor required for a professor to write a textbook.

Martin, a sophomore majoring in legal studies and political science, said he was inspired to become involved with this campaign after seeing his friends in science, technology, engineering and math majors spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks for their classes.

“When you already pay for the cost of enrollment you should have access to the supplementary academic materials you need for little to no cost, when you’re already paying that much money for higher education,” Martin said.

At the first MassPIRG meeting of the semester on Feb. 4, Martin told the audience textbooks created through the OEI cost only the amount of money it takes to print them, which he said is typically between $10 and $20.

Martin added he was unsatisfied with the direction the campaign was heading in last semester and met with Earls to discuss getting the SGA involved, after which they prepared a presentation about the OEI for the final senate meeting of the fall semester.

Martin said the next step for the campaign was to get more administrative support for the initiative so that more classes can offer open source textbooks to students.

“This type of Open Education Initiative, while it’s already saved students $1.3 million in textbook costs, it could be doing so much more for students if it just got the vocal and persistent support from the administration it needs,” Martin said.

Earls said he did not think open source textbooks were practical for every class at UMass, but for general education classes where the information in academic textbooks is readily available on the internet or through open source, it is a good solution.

He added that open source material is heavily credited and goes through extensive review before being verified, “so it’s not as if you’re pulling it from a Wikipedia page.”

“There’s no reason that professors need to be charging $200, $250 for textbook material that we can get otherwise,” Earls said.

He said that the OEI’s goal was to see every general education class at UMass switch to open education by fall of 2017.

Earls also said that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s UMass system budget for the coming year is not expected to be favorable for University students and that he anticipates tuition fees will rise.

“Looking at other ways the University can cut costs for students is really important and textbook costs have been an increasing fee students have faced over the past few years,” he said.

Earls said he expected the OEI to achieve more support once more members of the UMass staff and faculty became aware of it.

“It’s just a matter of publicizing it and getting them to commit and prioritize it,” he said.

Earls added that in addition to the SGA’s legislative branch, the association’s executive branch also supports the open letter.

Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster