Festive Workshop at Birkbeck, University of London


Last week the UK Open Textbook project workshop series headed south to London.  Two sessions were conducted in buildings off Russell Square in the heart of the capital.  The workshops were attended by a range of librarians, learning technologists and subject specialists representing London Metropolitan University, The University of London, University College London, The London School of Economics, Birkbeck, University of London, the Bloomsbury Group and Goldsmiths University.  We ran two sessions but the presentation here is combined together to avoid repetition.

The workshops began with thanks to Leo Havemann for arranging. The usual introductions to the project team were made along with the background to project and central idea: bringing USA model for open textbooks to the UK.  Changes to the funding model of UK higher education in 2011 were used to frame the financial pressures on students, who will on average owe £50,000 on fees and maintenance loans.

It was noted that many of Birkbeck students are working the equivalent of full time hours and also studying full time. In addition, many disabled students cannot afford transport.  Many students are stressed out by financial pressures.

Books and supplies may be relatively small part of the overall cost, but it is an area where we can make a difference. 2010 NUS survey estimated that £1000 is the average amount spent on books and other resources over a degree. Example of chemistry student who is basing her decision on whether to live in catered halls on the amount remaining after study materials.  Notably, the effects on students go way beyond financial considerations (n.b. student video).  But there is very little research on the use and educational impact of textbooks.  It was suggested that there is a general digitization of resources happening at Birkbeck – partly because lecturers are concerned about the affordability of textbooks.  The copyright licensing agency has made it clear this cannot be a strategy for resource substitution (except in the case where there is an identified accessibility need).  (It is interesting that this argument can be made from the point of view of accessibility, but not from the point of view of access alone (e.g. someone cannot afford the textbook.) In some subjects things don’t change very quickly and it has been customary to direct students to older editions, but even these are becoming very expensive for online resellers.Existing models for purchasing “don’t work” – single user licences and accessibility issues result in a lack of student access. Social mobility is reduced by the high cost of education with the poorest students hardest hit.

Pressure on space for physical stock is one driver of digitization.  Students also express a preference for digital copies and publishers are taking advantage of this by imposing (CLA) licence restrictions which work for neither staff nor students. Science textbooks can cost over £100 and this is a significant amount.  They are rarely available digitally, and e-copies are often more expensive (and cannot be photocopied).

Academics are often testing the limits of the system – adding supplementary materials to VLEs, making lecture notes available, using alternative assessments, videoconferencing. Necessity is the mother of invention.  Similarly, students also get creative: using older editions of materials; delaying purchase; going without the recommended resources; waiting until purchase is absolutely necessary (e.g. failing a class); sharing textbooks.  7 out of 10 USA students have gone without a required textbook because of cost.  Viv Rolfe shared some results from a survey of UWE students to illustrate similar concerns in the UK.

There was some awareness of open textbooks among participants. Viv explained the open textbook production model, and how the proprietary model requires copyright to be present and enforceable.  Open textbook production can allow alternative ways of organising work flow and production teams.  University presses (like UCL) are increasingly mandating for open access publication, or a hybrid print-on-demand model.  Discoverability of OA issues is still an issue though.  Items are shared through word-of-mouth.

Open licensing was described as the key that unlocks the door to a new model of production and distribution. There was a question about authorship – who is the author of the remixed piece? (It depends on licence, but it gets more complicated own the line…)   Anonymous authorship is also an option.

What is the role of the library and traditional catalogues when resources like these are available online? A. Librarians are key to resource selection. Core reading lists are a massive opportunity to raise awareness of open materials with staff. NB library systems can be quite constraining. It was noted that senior staff and academics tend to be sceptical about open textbooks and this can impede advocacy. This highlighted the Importance of academic culture:  lack of sharing; resistance to change; privilege; fear of copyright violation; pressure to retain intellectual property (especially in the humanities). Being committed to a particular textbook for all students overlooks the fact that some of them would find alternative provision more effective.  So there is a kind of rigidity locked in when you don’t empower people to choose between a greater variety of resources.

The point was made that reading lists often don’t bear much similarity to the range of books that are actually available to students.  Students have often come to expect to have a textbook for each course – this is a relatively new idea and can be seen to have come from the USA.  This is unlike the way things used to be: students would be given a reading list and told to get on with it.

Representative comments

  • “Any change is a difficult ask for already pressured staff. It’s important to get buy in from senior management, but any change in practice is hard when academics and supporting staff are on a treadmill which renews itself annually.”
  • “University bodies often have unhelpful commercial partnerships with publishers”
  • “The idea of a textbook being the main element of a course can be seen as pedagogically problematic”
  • “There is a perception that textbooks are less profitable in the USA (maybe as a result of open textbook movement) so they are hiking the prices in the UK (while they can).”
  • “There is now a fund at LSE made available to support open access publication.”
  • “Amazon can be used as a distribution model for e-texts but it is not possible to give things away for free – there is a mandatory charge (of £1 to £1.50 per volume).”
  • “Textbook authors tend to be wedded to the traditional publication model because they make money from it – especially since textbooks aren’t really recognised as research or scholarship.”
  • “Low awareness of open resources in students can be explained by low levels of awareness among staff.  Staff provide guidance and leadership to students in terms of resources chosen.”
  • “I always choose an NC licence because I don’t want someone else making money from my work when I have specifically chosen not to.”
  • “If you think about it, students are paying for our expert advice on the choice of resources…”
  • “Publishers are getting away with murder by charging so much.”
  • “Please produce a guide that can be shared with faculties, managers, subject specialists, policymakers, etc. – help us to explain to others how this works.”
  • “On the production side I think you should be speaking with university presses (CUP, OUP, etc.) as I’m sure there are people there who are thinking the same way.”
  • “COREECON provides a UK example of a collaboratively produced textbook.”
  • “No-one is willing to step out and think differently” – big organisations encourage conformity
  • “Next time you give this presentation don’t spend so long on the context and just get to giving people solutions”
  • “Students don’t distinguish where information comes from – all they care about is whether they can access it or not.”

The Directory of Open Access Books was mentioned as a place to gather information about open access activity in the UK.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals conference was suggested as a place to raise the profile of the project

Rob Farrow

Researcher with OER Hub. Cat butler. Homepage at http:///philosopher1978.wordpress.com

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