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Questions loom on open textbooks as SU election gets underway

By Alexander Kim, February 26 2015 —

The University of Calgary has entered the two-week campaign period leading up the Students’ Union elections. A lot of promises are being made, many of them about open textbooks.

Open textbooks are available for free online and are licensed under creative commons. This allows instructors to edit and re-purpose the work and students don’t have to pay for them.

Almost all the vice-president external candidates have promised to seek more money for open textbooks.

David McDonald said he’ll promote them to faculty members and lobby the Alberta government for additional funding. Tristan Bray also wants to lobby the government for more money. Kyle Schole wants to “expedite delivery” of open textbooks.

But vice-president external Levi Nilson said open textbooks largely fall under the vice-president academic’s portfolio since the government provided $1.8 million in funding last April.

“As far as getting the dollars [for open textbooks] on campus, it’s over with,” Nilson said.

Both candidates for vice-president academic put open textbooks in their platforms. Stephan Guscott wants to change the faculty promotion and tenure guidelines so that contributing to an open textbook is considered when faculty members’ performances are evaluated.

Guscott said that since the development of open textbooks is not currently considered in assessments, there’s little incentive for instructors to spend their time working on them. Vice-president academic candidate Sherin Mohammed also identified this as a problem.

Mohammed proposed an open textbook pilot program. She wants to get faculty members to start using open textbooks in classes and survey students to see what they think. This strategy was successful in shifting Math 211: Linear Methods I to using an open textbook.

Current vice-president academic Hana Kadri thinks changing the promotion and tenure guidelines is a good idea and she has already begun discussing this at General Faculties Council.

U of C biology instructor William Huddleston said he would support the change, but student leaders should focus their efforts on executives rather than instructors.

“If [the SU] got the students behind this movement and got the attention of the faculty’s higher executives, that might make instructors take a serious look [at open textbooks],” Huddleston said.

The government formed a steering committee to oversee the distribution of the $1.8 million. The committee has received 93 statements of interest for funding open textbooks. From those, the committee requested about 25 proposals.

SU president Jarett Henry sits on the steering committee. He said he was disappointed that none of the proposals would affect larger introductory courses at the U of C.

“I think this is a really good start and I’m enthusiastic about the impact it will have at U of C and across the province, but I think it showed me that there’s more work to be done,” Henry said.

The steering committee will decide which proposals to fund by early April.

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