The cost of textbooks has forever been a standby college student complaint. After tuition fees and rent, textbook costs can become a smoldering nuisance for some, and a financial impossibility for others. But you all know this; we’re all poor college students here (or at least pretend to be). However, while some of us sit on our asses and complain about how that damn new Bio book is totally hindering our substantial financial contributions to the Horseshoe, some Western students are taking a proactive approach to lowering the ever rising cost of textbooks.

Recently, with the help of the Western Washington University Associated Student Board of Directors, a new state wide bill was passed in early 2006 aiming to cut textbook prices at state universities. The bill specifically addresses the practice of what has been called “book bundling,” or the tendency of publishing companies to include unnecessary course packets, CD-ROMs and DVDs attached to text books as a way of increasing profit. At the AS Bookstore, an estimated 10-15% of textbooks sold are sold bundled, according to a Textbook Legislation Task Force memo.

Vice President of Academic Affairs for the Associated Students James Sanders said, “What the bill was intended to do basically is eliminate bundling. . .what we’re hoping to do is make it so these items can be sold unbundled— I mean the professor may still require all those items for students to buy. But I could just buy a work book, and borrow a friend’s text book to read if I wanted to.”

“We can force the hand of the university and encourage the faculty to make decisions to make books cheaper for us but it’s really the publishers that are our biggest problem” Sanders said. “Hopefully, what we should do to make textbooks cheaper on a bigger scale is to go after the publishers federally... because publishing companies are run nationally the state of Washington can’t really do much.”

However, the bill focuses on how university faculty and staff can lower costs independent of such domineering corporations. The bill, according to the House Bill Report, requires university bookstores to allow students to buy unbundled materials, make faculty members aware of student costs, reveal the difference between new and previous text book editions, and publicize book buy-back programs.

The motivation behind the bill has been the steady annual rise of textbook costs. Washington state alone has experienced a 3.1% increase since last year in total books and supplies cost for an academic year, the average now at $924, according to the House Bill Report. It’s estimated that the cost of textbooks accounts for 26% of student tuition and fees at four year public universities, say the Textbook Legislation Task Force.

According to them, however, the AS Bookstore is better than most, recording prices 87% lower than that of most college bookstores in the nation (the AS Bookstore charges a 25% markup fee, and then deducts 10% for students).

Though the recent bill implementation is a progressive move toward making university texts more affordable, and not to mention a flashy flex of our student government’s muscles, other, perhaps easier and more accessible routes are being taken to lower the cost of texts—or even to eliminate cost all together. The concept is called Open Courseware. It’s an online educational resource, similar to BlackBoard, but entirely open source, meaning freely available to the public.

“It’s a way of organizing educational materials such as those that might be found in a textbook or presented in a lecture, in a structured and open format available to everyone in the world,” Phil Ashlock, a New Media Senior said.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology initiated the OpenCourseWare concept in 2001, and since then has aggregated much of their course materials online, including pod casts of lectures, full syllabi, lecture notes and much of course reading materials. The OpenCourseware format allows for all public domain materials to be published on a course’s site, as well as faculty members’ own work or additional notes.

Ashlock described the purpose of OpenCourseWare as, “to more easily disseminate the information offered in a class and potentially replace the need of text books for instructional material that’s already publicly available, and use that instead of requiring textbooks. The goal is to make information more openly available, to break down the sort of walled garden approach universities take in regard to spreading knowledge.”

MIT, Harvard Law, UC Irvine and Notre Dame are some of the American universities already using this program. Not only does it allow for a wide dispersal of university information, but it also essentially allows for anyone to take university classes for free. Potentially, we can all be MIT students— well, online anyway. Ashlock is quick to point, however, that this is not a move to eradicate the place of textbooks in the classroom.

“I think it’s just an additional resource for professors. A resource that would maybe help professors reconsider the need for certain textbooks... just providing more open access to the resources that should already be openly available to everyone,” Ashlock said.
Sanders and Ashlock have discussed working together to instill OpenCourseWare at Western. “Really it will be the professors who are the driving force, but obviously that coupled with the need and drive of students... but I think what James [Sanders] and I are first going to do is talk to individual professors and eventually, within the next few weeks, get together some meetings and try to get more broad dissemination, like a memo, going,” Ashlock said of the necessity of faculty interest, as it will be individual professors organizing their individual course sites.
Though maybe not specific to OpenCourseWare, Western has made recent attempts to broaden their educational reach via the internet. According to Ashlock, some of Western’s lectures will begin to be podcast. Still, that’s a small step compared to what is quite literally at our fingertips.

When Sanders and the rest of the AS Board got into this, they were hoping to simply lower the cost of textbooks; however, we may end up becoming part of a worldwide knowledge sharing community.