UConnPIRG works to make open access textbooks available

Members of UConnPIRG work to spread awareness regarding the effectiveness of open access textbooks and resources in the library on November 9, 2016. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut has been expanding its efforts to provide open access resources, including open source textbooks, for student use.

Open source textbooks are educational resources published with an open licensing agreement. These textbooks are available for free online or in print with a minimal charge to cover the cost of printing the material.

UConnPIRG, a student activist group on campus has been deeply involved in making open access education resources available to more students at the university.

“Bringing open educational resources [to UConn] has been something that various organizations have wanted to do to fix what is a broken market,” UConnPIRG’s treasurer and senior finance major Saman Azimi said.

Students have the option to rent textbooks or buy them used. However, many courses require textbooks with single-use access codes that must be purchased new.

“We saw the most effective option as brining open textbooks, which are textbooks that are totally legitimate, peer-reviewed, just published under some kind of open license,” Azimi said.

Other universities in the country, including UMass Amherst, have launched pilot programs for open source textbooks.  

UConn has its own open educational resource program that offers faculty incentives to create and adopt open educational materials for their courses.

Dr. Edward Neth, a chemistry professor at UConn, edited an existing open access textbook and adapted it for his Chemistry 1124, 1125, and 1126 classes after students brought the problem of the high cost of textbooks to his attention.

“I got involved in open access partly through the library,” Neth said. “I asked a question which was ‘has anybody thought of adapting the existing open access book into atoms first format, which is now about 1 out of every 5 book sales.”

Neth was then asked to edit the book, the cost of which was covered by $20,000 allocated by the student government for the project.

The UConn Co-op also gave $30,000 towards the expansion of open source textbooks at UConn.

Several other chemistry professors at the Storrs campus have begun using open-source textbooks in their classes.

“Chemistry kind of blazed the trail for the university, there are a few other people who have used open access before but, by far, chemistry is the largest right now,” Neth said.

The university is targeting getting open access textbooks into use in classes with the largest enrollments such as general chemistry, physics, psychology, or biology, Neth said.

The open source textbooks used in Chemistry classes at UConn currently affect upwards of 300 students.

Neth said he did not have to adapt his teaching style or alter his syllabus in any way to accommodate the new textbook.

“I have this book architected to fit how I want to deliver content for this course to these students,” Neth said. “When you get to do it yourself it fits like a glove.”  

Neth said various textbooks in science and math disciplines are not that different from one another.

“You could probably take the top five chemistry textbooks and if you swapped the covers around, even the instructors using it might not be able to tell one from the other,” Neth said.

Part of the problem with the price of textbooks is the lack of competition in the market, Neth said.

“The fact that there are only four major publishers, at least in science, limits the competition and there isn’t really an incentive to lower the cost,” Neth said.  

Neth said he hopes more professors in other disciplines and at other campuses will begin using open source textbooks.

“Sometimes it’s just making faculty aware of how much textbooks cost,” Neth said. “When the publishers come around with textbooks, they don’t tell you how much they’re going to cost.”  

UConnPIRG helped organize a panel with students, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Vice Provost Reis with the goal of getting open source textbooks into UConn classes last fall.

“It was a really successful event because right then and there Vice Provost Reis made a verbal commitment to starting an open textbook pilot program at UConn, which was really an incredible step,” Azimi said.  

The committee has also worked with State Rep. Gregg Haddad, the Connecticut state Representative for the Mansfield area, to draft legislature to create an open educational resource taskforce at the state level.  

“The point of that is to see what we can do state-wide to make open educational resources a reality for students across the state,” Azimi said.  

The university recently received a Davis Educational Foundation Grant for $20,000 which is being used in conjunction with $100,00 provided by the Provost’s Office as incentives for faculty to incorporate OER materials into their courses.

“Hopefully in the next couple of months we can come to some really tangible policy recommendations to make open educational resources a reality for students across Connecticut,” Azimi said. 


Anna Zarra Aldrich is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at anna.aldrich@uconn.edu. She tweets @ZarraAnna.