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The case for using open textbooks in HE is growing

In South Africa, textbook costs have proven to be a barrier to accessing or completing tertiary education, despite the government’s provision of subsidies and financial aid. In other countries, there is growing momentum to allocate funds to the production of open textbooks, which present a more sustainable and affordable solution.

From 2000 to 2016 South Africa’s enrolment in universities, TVET (technical and vocational education and training) and related tertiary institutions effectively doubled from one million to two million learners. Much growth has been attributed to the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), comprised of bursaries and loans, that has enabled hundreds of thousands of learners to enrol in a tertiary institution.

In March 2019, amidst a finding that more than half of tertiary learners could not afford tuition and related fees, the government announced it would forgive some loans to the tune of US$65 million. Just recently, the University of KwaZulu-Natal endured student protests centred on greater debt relief for NFSAS recipients and non-recipients alike, signalling that students’ financial challenges are in need of other interventions.

The financial pressures faced by students and their families encompass tuition and related expenses, such as accommodation, food and textbooks. The latter expense continues to frustrate students in particular, as textbook costs rise seemingly faster than any other expense.

In the United States alone, textbook costs have risen by 1,000% over 40 years, far outpacing the rate of inflation, according to an independent analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2015. While comparable data is unavailable in South Africa, there have been similarly eyebrow-raising increases in textbook costs more recently.


Making study more affordable

Adding to students’ frustration is the fact that textbooks are unevenly priced across disciplines, and after one semester’s use, students are saddled with a textbook when only a portion may have been assigned, and often it holds little relevance for use in their future learning.

Proposed policy solutions include eliminating the VAT on textbooks, licensing textbooks that can be copied, replacing textbooks with modules and encouraging the use or purchase of second-hand textbooks.

A viable intervention under the bursary portion of NFSAS provides up to ZAR5,000 (US$272) annually to eligible recipients, and this has recently shifted from a voucher to a cash payment, widening student choice in the process. Yet, students claim that the amount is not enough and is only open to those who have received aid under NFSAS, overlooking thousands of other students.

Varying initiatives have emerged that aim to minimise affordability constraints through free learning materials, including the use of open textbooks, part of the family of open educational resources (OER), which are learning materials that are usually online and free to download, use and modify, depending on the copyright licence.

Textbook Revolution! is a student-led initiative that advocates for teachers and professors to embrace open textbooks in their classrooms and lecture halls. Another is the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) Open Learning site, which includes a small list of projects that use open learning materials oriented towards three TVET areas. This latter initiative holds promise for expansion.

The DHET’s Open Learning Policy Framework, premised on expanding “access to more cost-effective and flexible education and training”, further stipulates that DHET will “invest in materials development and ensure that high quality teaching and learning resources will progressively be made freely available as OER”.

To date, the policy framework has yet to be more fully realised. Nevertheless, these examples demonstrate a good start and may provide a pathway for wider adoption in South Africa for open textbooks, and even Z-degrees (where students can gain degrees using open textbooks so they don’t have to pay for any textbooks).


Open textbooks as a sustainable solution

In several countries, the prevalence and use of open textbooks is gaining momentum. You can find full libraries and repositories of open textbooks online – see for example, eCampus Ontario, the Center for Open Education at the University of Minnesota, BCCampus in British Columbia and an aggregate of other sites found at Educational Technology and Mobile Learning.

There are also other instances of open textbooks in Pakistan and the United Kingdom.

Some entities have gone to the next level by offering Z-degrees. Between Canada and the US, there are about 37 institutions offering Z-degrees. Apart from findings that open textbooks enable cost savings, other reasons for the growth of these materials is that they have been shown to improve learning outcomes and foster a greater culture of equity.


Towards a more equitable society

Adopting open textbooks is not an overnight solution that will stem exorbitant textbook costs. Allocating funds, soliciting the will of institutional leaders and capacity building are notable investments that take time to achieve and require significant introspection about planning and implementation.

Can funds be secured for a multi-year initiative with a viable plan for sustainability? Is there sufficient political will to overcome the book publishing lobby, quality concerns and up-end the status quo? To what extent are faculty knowledgeable about creating or modifying open textbooks? How are they incentivised to do so?

The task ahead should not fall squarely on the shoulders of government and should instead include institutions and individual professors, as is premised under the Textbook Revolution! initiative.

Fortunately, there are a collection of institutions dedicated to supporting the growth and adoption of open textbooks, and OERs more broadly. The Commonwealth of LearningOER Africa, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and others provide a plethora of materials, including guides and courses and other interventions to address some of these questions.

In the context of South Africa where there are growing pressures on the public purse to fund other priorities (i.e. welfare schemes, pensions and K-12 education) and where the long-term impact of COVID-19 could exert still more pressure, there are opportunities to re-conceptualise the use of textbooks towards achieving more sustainable outcomes.

Using open textbooks is one approach that can alleviate financial pressures with the added prospect of improving learning and achieving greater opportunity. Together, such outcomes may contribute to fostering a more equitable and learned society in the Rainbow Nation.

* By Kirk Perris and Mpine Makoe | 09 April 2020

Dr Kirk Perris is an education adviser at the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). Mpine Makoe is a professor at the University of South Africa and Commonwealth of Learning Chair: Open Education Practices/Resources (OER/OEP).

This article was first published by University World News. You can read the original article here.

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Publish date: 2020/04/14