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McKeldin Mall became a graveyard yesterday, strewn with the graves of textbooks: Introductory biology, once valued at $160, died $6. Basic calculus, born $225, died just $15. The used books, the gravestones cried, were worth about as much as the dirt they were under.
The demonstration was part of a larger effort by a coalition of 17 student groups brought together by MaryPIRG and the Student Government Association to raise awareness of the high cost of textbooks. The groups, known collectively as the Textbook Affordability Coalition, are pushing for professors to use open-source materials and textbooks, which are published for free online, instead of traditional books.
In addition to yesterday's event, the students plan to hold a spring book fair showcasing cheaper educational resources to professors and meet with professors and academic departments to urge them to consider alternatives to textbooks put out by major publishers. Additionally, members hope to have at least five classes switch to more cost-effective materials.
Despite the lower cost, coalition members said instructors at this university have been slow to embrace the new trend.
"Textbook affordability is an issue every student faces, but don't do anything about," said SGA Vice President of Academic Affairs Jamil Scott. "Textbook prices rise every single year, and this is something students can't plan for."
Although Mahlon Straszheim, associate provost for academic affairs, said the university has a policy advising faculty members to consider textbook costs when placing orders each semester, MaryPIRG President Samantha Zwerling said "traditional texbooks still prevail" on the campus. Zwerling said the university needs to adopt more books such as those used in BMGT 301: Introduction to Information Systems. Business and management professor Guodong Gao said he selected a virtual textbook because it was of comparable quality to its more expensive counterpart.
Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology is published by Flat World Knowledge, a company founded in 2007 by Eric Frank and Jeff Shelstad, who had spent a combined 32 years working for major publishers before splintering off to try a new business model. While many textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars to purchase, Flat World's books are free to read online. Frank said the company is more financially efficient because of much lower marketing and manufacturing costs — major publishers, he said, spend a lot of money on sales representatives, book layout and purchasing rights to artwork. Flat World's layouts are built on a standard template that requires minimal effort, and images are rarely included.
Flat World Knowledge is also a member of the nationwide "Textbook Rebellion" tour to collect petition signatures and raise awareness about open-source materials. The tour, led by the national PIRG chapter, kicked off on this campus in August before embarking on an itinerary that includes 40 college campuses in 14 states.
Although Textbook Rebellion members hope to spark change on campuses across the nation, Andi Sporkin, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers, said it's inaccurate to say major publishers are apathetic to student concerns.
"Strangely, PIRG is out arguing on behalf of what the nation's higher education publishers have been doing for years," Sporkin wrote in an email. "We have been aggressively working to provide students with multiple course materials options in a wide variety of prices and in print, digital and online formats."
She also said many traditional textbooks are now available with cost-saving options such as black-and-white printing, paperback editions and e-books.
But for some students, these efforts aren't enough. Senior Vanathy Senthilkumar, for example, picked one of her elective classes based on which one had the cheaper book. Senthilkumar, who works at the University Book Center, said she tries to shop for textbooks online, but said it's tricky when instructors assign custom editions.
Psychology professor Charles Stangor said he wrote books for major publishing companies before leaving to develop an introductory psychology book for Flat World Knowledge.
Since its release a year ago, Stangor's book has been adopted by classes at 34 schools, according to Flat World Knowledge. But Stangor said he is still an exception among professors in higher education, who prefer traditional textbooks.
"[Major publishers] haven't woken up to the idea that they are too expensive," he said.
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