MASSPIRG spreads awareness of high textbook costs with Zombie event

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MASSPIRG zombie textbooks
Photo courtesy of Naudia Sanchez
Students dress up as zombie textbooks in the campaign for open source textbooks.

By Matt Hotaling

Students ran around the quad chased by zombie textbooks, a grim reminder for many students of how their expensive textbooks take a big bite from their budgets.

Although this event was fun with students dressed up as zombie textbooks,  the rising cost of college is something that affects all students regardless of field of study or type of institution.

According to Collegeboard.com, a student should expect to pay approximately $1,250 a year on just textbooks and learning materials, over $600 a semester. Textbook publishers have little competition and their monopoly allows them to inflate the prices of their texts.

Open-source textbook initiatives are hoping to help give students a much more affordable option. MassPIRG is hoping that by increasing awareness of open-source materials, more professors will consider switching from traditional textbooks to an open-source option and help their students save money.

What sets these textbooks apart is the “open” license, which enables two key features.  First, open-source textbooks can be legally shared, copied, and distributed, so students can access the material in a wide range of print and digital formats at little or no cost without fear of expiration dates.  Second, open-source textbooks can be legally adapted by instructors, which makes it possible to add new material, change terminology, or remove unnecessary chapters so the textbook perfectly fits a class.

It’s not uncommon for students to pass on buying a textbook due to prohibitive costs. A 2014 survey of students by U.S. PIRG Education Fund revealed that approximately 65 percent of students opted out of buying a text, knowing  it might negatively affect their grades. By having textbooks freely available to all, students will not be financially restricted from having the materials they need to succeed.

Publishers like OpenStax College make their texts available to students free as digital copies, and have the option to buy print versions for an affordable cost, usually between $20 and $50 to cover the cost of printing, according to Avery Woodbury, sophomore and MCLA MassPIRG chapter chair.

Open-source textbooks can be especially useful for students at liberal arts colleges like MCLA that require students to take courses in multiple domains. Often the intro-level courses that students take to fulfill the core curriculum will require students to purchase large textbooks that can run anywhere from $100 to $300, which most students will never use again. For this reason, professors like Kebra Ward have adopted open-source textbooks for their classes.

“I teach the general physics course, so it’s a course that’s for non-majors,” Ward said. “Physics books can be really expensive, and most students won’t touch the text again after my class.”

Open-source textbooks may not cost anything to students, but they are still robust and competitive when compared to traditionally published textbooks.

“The textbooks are peer-edited by professionals, so quality isn’t an issue,” Woodbury said.

Woodbury and others from MassPIRG plan on meeting with educators on campus to try to convince them to switch to open textbooks if possible in their courses.

Students may not be able to run away from costly textbooks yet, but those who could evade the zombie textbooks on the quad longest won small cash prizes. Woodbury said that he would like to organize similar events in the future, perhaps making them a regularly scheduled event.