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Premiering today, "Cracking the Textbook," the latest documentary in the Open Source Stories series from Red Hat, explores how open source is providing an alternative to costly textbooks for college students across the country. Scholars, students and other open educational resource advocates, are helping affordable alternatives emerge and working to bring them to lecture halls across the country and around the world. This is their story. 

The film features experts and students working to lower the barriers to higher education including: Amy Baldwin, director, Student Transitions, University of Central Arkansas; Richard Baraniuk, founder and director, OpenStax; Shafina Chowdhury, campaign coordinator, Affordable Textbooks, UConnPIRG; Barbara Gooch, community college student; and Erin McConnell, campaign member, Affordable Textbooks, UConnPIRG. 

We’ve invited Shafina and Erin to share more about their experiences advocating for the use of OpenStax and Open Education Resources.


Stepping into the college experience is a whirlwind. For many people, it’s your first time away from home and one of the first times that you are tasked with managing your life on your own. There are a lot of details you need to figure out. Are you going to live on campus or off? What meal plan do you want to use? What do you want to choose as your major? What classes do you want to take? And likely most pressing, how are you going to afford everything you need?

When talking about the cost of education, there is one thing that is an issue for every student: the cost of textbooks. Textbooks for a college course can cost upwards of $100 apiece and, depending on how many courses you are taking in a semester, that can add up very quickly. In fact, the College Board found that the average university student spends more than $1,200 on books each year. For students it can be hard to justify the steep costs of books, especially when it comes to courses outside your field of study. 

As university students, there are a certain number of classes we are required to take outside of our major in order to graduate. These  are often introductory-level courses across a variety of subjects and are referred to as general education classes. They make up a decent amount of the classes that you take while in school. Let’s be real, most students taking these classes are doing so simply to satisfy the graduation requirement and won’t continue further into the subjects past general education courses. 

Students are already frustrated because they have to take classes that are unrelated to their major, but the burden of purchasing expensive books for subjects can add more unneeded stress. With this as a barrier, students who are financially compromised can be impacted since they have no other choice but to pay for a class and books that may not benefit them in the long run. 

It’s this predicament that led us to the idea of having all introductory-level courses use open educational resources (OER) for their textbooks and materials. Using OERs can help students in a couple ways. First, they won’t need to purchase expensive textbooks for gen ed subjects that they won’t explore past introductory level. Second, students with  financial difficulties can take a wider variety of classes and delve into topics they may not have been able to otherwise. . Even students who do not have financial difficulties can benefit from OER as they have more freedom to choose classes they wish to take, even if there is a higher textbook cost.

Focusing on introductory-level courses with our OER efforts has also been in part due to the expanse and existing availability of OER textbooks at this level. There is little upfront work that needs to be done. As with anything new, the lower the barrier to entry the better! Teachers and students can already start using these resources immediately. 

No plan is foolproof. And there is a lot of work that will have to go into seeing the implementation of OERs in all introductory-level courses actualized. However, we believe that this is a good place to start if we want to make college more affordable for the students. The goal is to expand OER textbooks to higher level courses down the road so there are resources throughout the college experience, not just in gen ed classes.

To watch the full documentary "Cracking the Textbook," visit Open Source Stories, and join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #opensourcestories.


About the authors

Shafina Chowdhury is a sophomore accounting major at the University of Connecticut and is an advocate for affordable course materials. As a member of the UConn Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), she is encouraging professors to adopt open source books and online materials. She is also empowering other students to be advocates.

Erin McConnell is a senior studying math at the University of Connecticut and is an advocate for affordable course materials. As a member of the UConn Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), she is encouraging professors to adopt open source books and online materials. She is also empowering other students to be advocates.