Free online textbooks a boon to students

Raina Delisle

The extra costs of attending university can add up quickly. From residency fees to bus passes, students often struggle to pay the bills. After tuition, one of the most significant expenses is textbooks. Ranging in price from $40 to $300, students can end up paying more than $1,000 a semester for materials they may only read once. But a new project aims to change that.

Royal Roads University MA in Learning and Technology (MALAT) alumnus Clint Lalonde is a key player in BCcampus’s open textbook project. The initiative aims to put textbooks for 40 of the most popular first- and second-year subjects in B.C.’s public post-secondary system online and available for free to approximately 200,000 students.

“This is a pretty exciting project that will have a big impact on post-secondary students here in British Columbia,” says Lalonde, manager of Curriculum Services and Applied Research with BCcampus. Lalonde says the cost of textbooks can negatively impact students’ educational experience. Often, students are waiting for loans to come in and can’t purchase their textbooks until weeks into the course. Others opt to share textbooks and some even photocopy them, infringing on copyright laws. Open textbooks also allow for freedom in format. Instead of lugging around five-pound textbooks, students can have all their course materials on their laptop or tablet. There will also be the option to print textbooks at a low cost.

BA in Professional Communication student Stephanie Pollard spends about $400 per term on textbooks and says the project brings her a sense of relief. “That money could go towards something else – such as rent, an emergency – it eases the pressure of being without a safety net. It’s also more environmentally conscious and more convenient because you can have your textbooks on a tablet as opposed to carrying 15 pounds. On a more noble level, free online textbooks remove the exclusion of those who might not have access to post-secondary education.”

Beyond the benefits to students, the open textbook project encourages new collaboration between post-secondary institutions. BCcampus is working with international partners with experience in creating open textbooks and is exploring the possibility of using material from existing online textbooks that have open licences, which allows them to be used and modified. BCcampus is also working with faculty from B.C. post-secondary institutions, who will be authoring and reviewing the textbooks.

“This kind of collaboration strengthens the entire post-secondary system in British Columbia because you get people from different B.C. institutions working together and any time you can do that you’re going to find commonalities and synergies that maybe you didn’t even know existed until these people started talking and working together on a project,” says Lalonde, whose primary role on the project is technical.  

Collaborating to bring new ideas to the field of education is at the heart of what Royal Roads does. The university is a pioneer in online education and launched the MALAT program in 1996. Just last month, the university opened a new school, the School of Education and Technology, to support further learning and research in the area. “Building on the university’s expertise in online learning, the school will bring together keen minds to explore new technologies and seek solutions for industry as well as educational institutions and organizations,” says Jo Axe, director of the school.  

Axe says one of the strengths of the MALAT program is that it attracts innovative learning professionals like Lalonde from various sectors, including K-12 and post-secondary education, military and health. “It creates a really rich learning environment,” she says. “The students are coming in and comparing how they’re working in different sectors, and then applying it to their own environment. It’s a really exciting place to learn and to teach.”

Lalonde came to Royal Roads in 2009 with a desire to delve deeper into the theory in his industry. “I had a lot of practical experience, but I didn’t have a lot of theoretical grounding, and that’s what I really got from the master’s program,” he says.

Lalonde has worked in distributed learning for the past 18 years and has seen a great deal of change. An interest in broadcasting took him to Camosun College, where he worked at the radio station. Part of the station’s operating licence required five hours a week of educational programming. Lalonde would work with instructors to put together one-hour documentaries or radio plays to support what was happening in the classroom. “That was my first taste of distance education,” he recalls. “That area eventually went to the web, so we started podcasting and from there started developing online courses with faculty.”

Upon completing his degree, Lalonde worked at RRU’s Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies, where he was responsible for selecting, implementing and supporting learning technologies. He says his experience at different institutions greatly benefits him in his current role. “I’ve seen how teaching and learning with technology happens across different institutions,” he says. “And what you’re trying to do when you’re working in collaboration is to try to emphasize the similarities and respect the differences.”