If there’s one part of the college experience that remote learning should turn permanently digital, it’s textbooks.
Often, print textbooks — and particularly those impenetrable, elephantine ones we never actually use — run upward of $200 apiece, a cost prohibitive for many. Some UC Berkeley students report spending as much as $700 on course materials in a single semester, which is an obscenely high bill given the many other costs to attend university.
An array of grant programs and library resources are in place at UC Berkeley to help students access affordable course materials. But when roughly 40% of undergraduates on campus are housing and food insecure, and as the current economic recession continues to compound financial burdens, targeted grants seem ineffectual and textbook fees particularly frivolous.
Today, UC Berkeley remains the only campus in the UC system not to have adopted the Inclusive Access textbook program, which provides course materials at far lower prices by charging students through bundled university fees.
Inclusive Access is by no means perfect. The program is run by the same publishers that dominate the print textbook market, and there have been concerns over the transparency and flexibility of charges. In general, digitizing course materials alone won’t solve a lack of affordability: Other popular systems such as Pearson’s MyLab & Mastering and The Expert TA, both of which require students to pay inordinate sums to complete mandatory homework assignments, carry over similar burdens from the print world.
But print textbooks today — an anachronism, not to mention a waste of paper — are badly in need of a system update. And as the world appears pointed toward a future, for better or worse, based in the cloud, more flexible and affordable online course materials seem the path best followed.
If UC Berkeley adopts Inclusive Access, professors would ultimately decide whether or not to use the program in their classes. Such decisions over course materials have always fallen to professors, some of whom make conscious decisions to minimize costs while others seem to mandate materials with little concern for students’ wallets.
As professors begin crafting course syllabi for the fall semester, affordability must become a collective priority. Students should never be required to purchase entire textbooks when only select chapters — or none at all — will be explicitly covered in class. If instead, professors consciously build courses around digital, open source materials, curriculums will become not only more accessible but more dynamic, enriching and diverse, too.
At the very least, students shouldn’t have to scour the internet in frantic search of alternate course materials to meet their budgets. That is time and energy better spent actually engaging with course content — or, perhaps, having a nice afternoon picnic on Memorial Glade.