Calgary

University of Calgary Student-led project investing in Open Educational Resources

Students at the University of Calgary are taking matters into their own hands, to create a library of free textbooks after years of inaction from the provincial government. 

Students say Alberta lags behind other provinces in adopting free course resources

Semhar Abraha with the University of Calgary Students' Union and Chaten Jessel — one of the students behind the initiative, say Alberta lags behind other provinces in adopting free course resources. (Submitted by Abraha and Jessel)

Students at the University of Calgary are taking matters into their own hands, to create a library of free textbooks after years of inaction from the provincial government. 

Open Educational Resources (OER) are hailed as a way to make colleges and universities more affordable for students. In provinces like Ontario and British Columbia, government funding has opened hundreds of these online, free, textbook resources up to learners netting millions in savings. 

After years of advocacy with the province, and little action, schools have been creating their own resource libraries piecemeal. 

In high demand

The latest investment is coming out of a student-led initiative at the University of Calgary.

"We're hoping for some kind of movement, some kind of commitment to fund it potentially because there is a very high demand for it and need for it." said VP Academic Semhar Abraha with the University of Calgary Students' Union. 

The province says it is actively looking for ways to incorporate OERs, according to a statement from Advanced Education Minister press secretary Taylor Hides.

"Alberta's government sees great value in Open Educational Resources," wrote Hides. "The long term strategy for post-secondary education, Alberta 2030, will be presented in the coming weeks and will help strengthen student access in post-secondary."

Textbooks costly

Students can spend hundreds of dollars on a single textbook, with several courses each semester.

"One textbook can easily amount to a months' worth of groceries," said third-year student Connor Braun. "Courses generally don't assign readings amounting to more than 5% of the book … if that's the case, then students are getting something like $4 - $10 of value out of books costing $80 - $200." 

This leads to skipped required texts and reading because the cost outweighs the benefits Braun said. 

Then, there's the matter of trying to recoup costs at the end of the semester, as textbooks gather dust on the shelf. 

OERs can come in the form of textbooks, videos — even lesson plans or quizzes. These resources fall under the creative commons license, or a similar copyright, so that they can easily be shared for free once created and adapted to remain relevant. 

Funding will create dozens of resources

In 2017 the University of Calgary developed 10 of its own OERs using grant cash. The momentum didn't continue past the parameters of that pilot.

Now the school has a new fund, a pot of $500,000 that Chaten Jessel — one of the students behind the initiative — said will create up to 50 resources over the next five years. 

"Personally, for me, this project, it hits home," Jessel said. "It's a home run in so many different areas. I really think that it's going to make such a huge difference for students all across our campus."

The Open Education Resource Fund (OERF) was funded with Quality Money — which is an annual campus investment program funded by the university and the students' union and doled out by a student committee.

As part of his year-long application Jessel worked with student leaders, and the U of C's Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning to make the idea come to life. 

Student employment opportunities

These projects don't just save money for students, Jessel said. Because the texts and resources are created in-house, professors who apply for the cash grant to create or tailor an OER for U of C courses may hire students to help.

Which means employment, and on-the-job experience for those hired through this grant. 

Abraha says this will be a first step to give students immediate relief from the rising cost of education, but hopes the province will see the value in this type of investment.

"With COVID and the economy itself, students right now are paying more and struggling more than ever to find summer jobs or even find their first job after graduation," Abraha said. "

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