Open Pedagogy: Alternatives to paying for books

Let’s face it. Buying textbooks sucks. Especially when a professor claims they are required, but never requires any actual reading, because everything on the test is on the powerpoint slides. Then at the end of the semester, you try to sell the book, only to get maybe $20 for your very expensive paperweight. As professors we have the power to bring down this terrible system by incorporating open pedagogy to our courses (for more on open pedagogy, listen to this great podcast).

Textbooks are one example of a barrier to an open inclusive pedagogy. The added financial burden of purchasing books can prevent low-income students from attending college. If our ideal is to make education available to everyone, what can we do about this?

One way to overcome this barrier is through text rental. I was fortunate in my undergrad at UW-Stevens Point to have this system. It was a university-wide system where students were charged a small fee, (something like $12/credit while I was there) and then they borrowed books from the bookstore and returned them at the end of the semester. This system had a lot of benefits. It was much cheaper than buying books out right, and since it was a fee, financial aid could cover it (thanks Student Loans, I can never repay you). Students were not stuck with textbooks from general education courses that they will never use again, but if they wanted to, they could pay for the book to keep it. Also, since it was across the entire university, it did not rely on individual professors’ willingness to adopt open pedagogy practices. This of course, is not the perfect solution to all pedagogical troubles. There are definitely some downsides. For one, there is still the issue of being able to remix content to fit an individual course. Students were still responsible for buying their own supplementary texts, which could really hurt students taking a lot of literature courses or courses with lab manuals. In about 99.9% of cases, students do not retain the textbooks, because it still cost about $200 to keep a heavily used, pre-highlighted textbook at the end of the semester. I’m sure there were also some restrictions on professors to prevent them from switching textbooks every other semester. Although it’s not perfect, it is still a cool system that you should consider advocating for at your institution.

Another solution is to use open textbooks which can be altered to fit a specific course, and students can keep access to them. For me, open textbooks seemed like the perfect solution to open pedagogy at first. There are some issues here to consider. First, taking open sources and revising and remixing them to suit a course takes a lot of effort on the part of the professor. It could be pretty overwhelming for a professor just beginning to build a new course, and even a veteran professor making the switch to open sources may take several semesters to get everything together. Additionally, for some disciplines like Soil Science, open textbooks are virtually non-existent (If any of you can find an open text for soil science or environmental microbiology, please let me know in the comments). This is particularly frustrating as there is only 1 decent intro Soil Science book that is used and every new edition gets more expensive. Another thing brought up in the podcast is that creating open resource material is a privilege not every professor can afford. We should be mindful of the human cost of “free” material.

A third alternative is to abandon textbooks altogether. Instead, using other open source materials, or sources that are freely available through the university to impart knowledge to students. These can be very effective by using various media to explain concepts. These can easily be customized to fit a specific course. In sciences, we can chose to make lab manuals we’ve designed available online and allow students to print them out, or pull them up online in class to avoid forcing them to pay exorbitant prices through the book store. The downsides are again that finding these sources can be time-consuming for professors, and in some cases, finding readings that are not too dense or involved can be tricky. Although, if part of the course is for students to develop various ways of explaining topics, either by videos, animations, slides, written descriptions, etc. that can be shared (with permission) to students in future semesters, this obstacle can be slowly overcome.

The best method to embrace open pedagogy depends on the professor and the course, and may change with time. However, if we truly desire education for all, we have to find ways to incorporate accessibility and inclusivity in the courses we design, and the materials we require.


17 thoughts on “Open Pedagogy: Alternatives to paying for books

  1. Diana Devine


    That is an amazing system you had in undergrad!

    My mother had some slight superstitions about used textbooks, so I was fortunate that she and my father supported me in college with regard to textbooks, but so many students don’t have that privilege.

    Another challenge to transitioning to open textbooks are departmental requirements. For example, as GTAs in my department, I have to receive approval for my textbooks but am really limited to just one textbook for my course.


    1. Diana, that seems understandable albeit slightly obnoxious. Also a reason why a university-wide system to help students out is fantastic. Will your department approve an open textbook? If so, they should definitely look into developing one (pun intended).


  2. Sarah, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on textbooks. You provide great alternatives to paying for books. The text rental approach you mentioned is a great way to lower the cost on students. It also helps in recycling books that are otherwise be used by one student for one semester. I am more intrigued in your proposal for abandoning textbooks for open source material. I agree with you that such an approach can help students tailor their learning experience. Students can find the information they need and go into as much detail as they want.


    1. Thanks Ziyad!

      I think abandoning over-priced textbooks for a myriad of other sources can also work to help students embrace readings better. I remember as an undergrad, I always had this mentality that textbooks were dense and dull, so I didn’t really want to read them. However other articles, blurbs, and websites don’t already have that stigma, and may in fact be written in a more active, engaging way that gets students engaging with the material.


  3. Sarah,

    Your examples to traditional textbook buying are fantastic. I think moving away from a system of buying books and selling them for a fraction of the cost can have benefits to teachers and students. While time consuming, sourcing materials and reading from many authors could spark more curiosity in students and bring unique perspectives vs all readings coming from one place. Some of my favorite courses in grad school did away with the text book and assigned readings from different journals, book chapters, and current events.


    1. I totally agree with you! Using a compilation of sources can also get the viewpoints of a diverse group of authors. In my field, so many of the standard learning sources are written by old white men, and it’s focused on American soil science. I think that’s a real shortcoming because a. there’s soil on most of the rest of the world and b. other countries study and classify soils differently so our students are not getting a global perspective.


  4. slharrell

    Hi Sarah,
    I hear you on the problem of finding good open resources in your discipline. Landscape Architecture is the same; I’m always looking for materials to add into my digital library so that I can share with current and future students. And you’re right, there are huge human costs of creating these “free” materials. At some point, we have to decide that these resources are important to us and the funding/support will have to come from somewhere. I am really interested in what Rajiv Jhangiani describes as Digital Critical Pedagogy–where we educators are working together to craft and cultivate the resources that students need–and a big part of it is creating this understanding in the computer labs where students are doing their research. So to that end, I know that the new librarian in the Art & Architecture Library has created these CAUS-discipline-specific fast-track research guides to help students get closer to their topics with less legwork. Thinking of her example, I see a path and a place where I can contribute when I find resources that could help scholars that follow me. Do you think something similar to these research guides I described is a possibility for adaption to topics of interest to soil scientists?


  5. Yes, I agree that funding needs to come from somewhere that doesn’t exploit any marginalized groups. It would be really cool if there were grants to create open source material, or if teaching awards could include funds create materials. Maybe professors within a discipline could crowd-source some funding?

    I’m not sure what you mean with the research guides. Could you provide an example?


  6. Text books are ridiculously expensive,there is no doubt about it. Additionally, even though i would like to think that a professor can have really good notes or slides, its always comforting to use a text book especially when confronted with situations of uncertainty. In the case that a textbook is mandatory for a class, why not bundle the textbook with the price you already pay for the class, where the university provides everyone in class with the textbooks. Given that they are a huge organization buying books in bulk, they should be able to get to an agreement with the publisher where they can get the books much cheaper than we can.


    1. I agree that it’s helpful for students to have access to resources outside of notes for students to fall back on, and also to help professors get away from the lecture model where they just stand and impart facts the entire time. Subsidizing books would be a good solution. You should check out Patrick’s blog this week: Opening the “Canned” Curriculum and Critical Pedagogy. He has some good points on that. Although it is still somewhat restrictive in how professors can arrange their courses, and still allows capitalist publishing companies to charge ridiculous prices for books.


  7. Thanks for sharing your post, Sarah. I couldn’t agree more that textbooks are overpriced. As an art student, I fortunately have not had to buy a textbook for any class thus far in grad school. All of the readings for the past 2 years have been scanned and uploaded by my professors. This may be a reflection of my course of study (we do have to pay lab/material fees for our studio classes), but it also suggests that many professors are working to disrupt the expensive textbook paradigm. The textbook rental program you describe seems awesome. I would have really liked to have had that option when I was in undergrad. I think you make a great point by advocating for its incorporation and supplementing those text with additional resources so that they remain up to date.


  8. Love the discussion in these comments and the way the post explores the tradeoffs involved with various options. I’m stunned by the the dearth of intro texts in for soil science though! Sounds like an open pedagogy project just waiting for a team. I think the library would support the creation of an OER for the course — and I bet you could write it with the students over the course of a few semesters. Check out some of the ideas here:


  9. Thank you for your illuminating post. I really admire your previous institution for enacting such an interesting system of textbook rental. However, I would have to say that my vote goes towards your third option of doing away with textbooks altogether. Many books, especially in the sciences, are outdated by the time they are in print leaving students to purchase newer editions over older ones for a few small changes to the text, leaving students wallets empty and landfills full. With the pace of innovation and information today I feel that we have the ability to do away with textbooks completely in favor of more instantaneous information via the internet. Plus, this system requires students to learn how to identify credible information while learning to navigate the various information portals.


  10. Medha

    I’m pretty sure we can all agree that textbook prices are outrageous. Sounds like your undergraduate institution had a great system for making them accessible to students. I agree with you about the high effort and resources that would need to go into creating open access textbooks upfront. It seems that if someone is able to create this material, it would be incredibly beneficial for an entire field, not only for the reduced cost to users but also because the text could be adapted and updated efficiently as new information in the field is discovered.
    I came across this article when I was looking into the issue of textbook price and thought you might be interested:


  11. Systems Approach

    On your second strategy “taking open sources and revising and remixing them to suit a course” and the problem you highlighted of not having a good intro to soil science textbook could be overcome by a consortium or multi-professor effort. There could be open texts for the intro level of a majority of courses across disciplines, updated annually with the newest content. This would make it more broadly accessible to both students and faculty (removing the privilege) problem, democratizing the information, and disbursing the workload across more individuals. Also, TAs or interested students could help as a special project, for credit, etc.


  12. Thank you so much for your post! I know the though of open pedagogy alternatives appeals to me, I am sick of paying such high prices for text books. Luckily, most of my classes have always used them for class and I have not felt like I have personally wasted money, however, I think the cost of the books are insane. In my undergraduate, I had individual textbooks that cost $100, $200, and over $300 per book. I would almost spend nearly $1,000 per semester on books. Granted alot of those are psychology books which changed often and were large but still. Many students cannot afford to pay these prices. I think Open Access resources would be a great way to help give students access to education and keep them able to afford education.


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