University of Connecticut Undergraduate Student Government president Dan Byrd has big plans for the year, from increasing student outreach from USG, to his four-year textbook initiative that’s rapidly gaining momentum.
One of Byrd’s actions in office includes implementing office hours, which have been less emphasized in past years.
“I don’t like the idea that the student government would make decisions without hearing from students,” Byrd said. “I’m technically supposed to have four office hours a week, [previous] presidents haven't really published those.”
Byrd said he plans to post and advertise his official office hours on social media, along with other USG-funded events hosted by Tier II organizations.
“We spent over $800,000 this year on Tier II funding – for trips, for equipment, for open events,” Byrd said. “A lot of these groups do events that are open to all students, and we fund that 100 percent. I think we should advertise these events more.”
Byrd said he plans to use poster campaigns, social media and a calendar on the USG official webpage to inform students about upcoming events and activities.
One of Byrd’s main projects is his open source textbook campaign, which has garnered attention recently from Connecticut's state representatives and the UConn administration. Byrd has been working on the campaign since his freshman year.
“We’re really starting to move,” Byrd said. “It took about two years before anything really started happening – we had to plan things out and talk to a lot of professors.”
USG has been working with the UConn libraries, UConn PIRG and the Office of the Provost to help implement open source textbooks into classrooms. Recently, the UConn Co-op announced that they would donate $250,000 to the initiative.
“We’re very excited that the Co-op is showing interest in this campaign,” Byrd said. “The former treasurer of the Co-op actually sat on our Open Education Resources committee, and he provided us with a lot of information about which classes have the most expensive textbooks. Every dollar that goes towards the campaign, is saving students money.”
Open source textbooks are free for students to access online and cost only $55 for a hardcover – a fraction of the price for typically assigned STEM textbooks, which can reach upwards of $300 per book.
“The average student spends $1,200 per year on textbooks,” Byrd said. “That’s too much, especially when there’s an easy fix that’s free.”
Part of the donations made towards the open source textbook initiative will be used to fund incentives for professors, who are often reluctant to change their established curriculum, to use the textbooks.
“[The Provost] is offering any professor of any big, intro-level courses $10,000 to implement the open source textbook,” Byrd said. “It takes a lot of time to implement a new textbook – you have to come up with a new curriculum, new tests, new syllabi, new slides – so they’re incentivizing it.”
Other parts of the donations will be used to fund staff dedicated to researching and reviewing open source textbooks, in order to spread the word and legitimize the textbook for instructors.
The biggest barrier in the project is encouraging professors to use and trust the textbooks, Byrd said.
“These books are just as high quality as other textbooks,” Byrd said. “They’re peer reviewed, they have citations. We understand that it’s a big chance to throw out a book and start using a completely different one. A lot of professors don’t even know the value in them. They think that they’re lower quality, when really they’re not.”
The open source textbook currently used by the Chemistry Department was written by UConn chemistry professor Edward Neth. USG funded the $26,000 it took to research and write the book, and students are now using it for their introductory level classes in chemistry.
So far, the reaction has been positive from both students and professors currently implementing the book in their classes, Byrd said. Fewer students are dropping out of classes or not doing their homework because of the prohibitive costs of traditional textbooks.
Byrd encourages students to reach out to their professors about open source textbooks as well. Once professors are aware of the initiative, there’s a greater chance of them implementing the text and making the class more affordable for students.
“Talk to professors,” Byrd said. “If you have a really expensive textbook in your classroom, and there’s 300 other kids buying the textbook, go up to the professor and say, ‘Hey, have you heard about the open source textbook initiative? You should go to the Provost’s office and go check it out.’“
Byrd’s campaign aims to have nearly all introductory classes at UConn using open source textbooks.
“We want to get as many open source textbooks on campus as possible,” Byrd said. “Hopefully by the beginning of the next academic year, we’ll have implemented 10 new open source textbooks in biology, physics and calculus, which will save students over $5 million a year.”
Overall, Byrd said that his main task as USG president is to serve the student body. He hopes that his outreach and open source textbook initiatives will help students make the most of their time at UConn.
“Textbooks are one of the top two issues students ask us address, and I think this is the most effective way to do it,” Byrd said. “USG works really hard to advocate for students – we do more than just debate.”
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.