Laura Rodgers
Canadian University Press

Vancouver (CUP) — Fifteen free university textbooks have been put online by the B.C. government—but so far, only a handful of classes are using them.

The “open textbook” project, announced by the Ministry of Advanced Education in 2012, aims to make free, non-copyright-restricted online textbooks available for the 40 most popular post-secondary courses in the province. They’ve budgeted $1 million for the plan. The 15 books, put online on September 3, were previously available for free elsewhere on the Internet, but now they’ve been reviewed for quality by B.C. professors.

“Because reviews of the open textbooks were not due until September 3, there was not enough time for most instructors to incorporate open textbooks for this semester’s courses,” wrote ministry spokesperson Dan Gilmore in a statement.

“Nevertheless, we know that some instructors involved in the reviews are using the open textbooks for their courses this semester­—including the physics textbook at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Langara College, as well as the Marketing textbook at Northwest Community College, and Collaborative Stats at the Justice Institute.”

According to Gilmore, there probably won’t be existing textbooks available for all 40 target courses—which include first- and second-year level courses in subjects from biology to visual arts. To fill in the gaps, new textbooks will be commissioned from B.C. post-secondary faculty.

Similar projects are underway in California and Washington state as well.

The ministry is optimistic about the project, though it has its critics—Todd Pettigrew, an English professor at Cape Breton University, wrote a Maclean’s On Campus column denouncing the idea of government-commissioned textbooks to be written “by committee.”

A representative from BCCampus, the nonprofit organization charged with running the project, fired back with a reply saying the faculty reviewing the books would ensure their quality.

The ministry and BCCampus aren’t directly involved in trying to get instructors to use the free books, but BCCampus has organized workshops about open textbooks at various schools to try and raise awareness of the project.

They also hope faculty reviewers—who are given a $250 honorarium per review—will spread information about the books at their schools.

At Kwantlen, physics professor Takashi Sato was already considering an open-access physics textbook for use in a first-year class before he learned of the government project.

“I’m very lucky to work in an environment where my department colleagues support each other in trying out new things,” said Sato.

“When I first heard the books are free, I was curious but a little bit skeptical, because I thought anything free can’t be good. [But] I had a look at it, and the quality is up there with anything you’d buy on the market.” He said the previous book his class used cost each student over $180.

Sato said he’s “one of the first” academics he knows of to use an open textbook, but it’s something he’ll recommend to others. “If the other books for other disciplines are like this one, I’d encourage people to check them out,” he said.

The ministry hopes all 40 textbooks will be available online by September 2014.

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