Students talk textbooks: shockingly expensive, restrictive digital access, lacking diversity

This is the first in a weekly series of blog posts with highlights from the student and staff interview data and the national survey.

It’s been many months since I posted an update on the open textbooks as social justice project, as I have been working hard on the final report. I’ve been doing major revisions and improvements since May based on the generous and detailed feedback of the two external peer reviewers. I can’t wait to share the full report with you but until then, here are some insights.

How many people did you speak to when gathering data on this topic?

43 staff from a broad range of areas and disciplines from five universities were interviewed as part of the research: Deakin, La Trobe, RMIT, Charles Darwin and QUT. 19 students were also interviewed enrolled in either a post-graduate business program or an undergraduate arts and education foundation unit. In addition, 131 participants completed an online survey open to any Australian University staff member with teaching responsibilities.

What did you learn from this?

The staff and student data sets suggest that OER texts have potential in the Australian context for reducing inequalities of learning experiences and outcomes.

  • It’s not just the cost of textbooks. There’s the restrictions, workarounds and compromises of digital access and a legacy of many outdated, sexist and racist textbooks.
  • Staff and student interest in OER texts is strong – for the cost savings, immediate and unencumbered access and for addressing under-representation and mis-representation within the curriculum as part of keeping it updated.
  • Adopting and authoring OER texts is an emerging practice rather than a common practice, but awareness of OER’s usefulness for updating, sharing and diversifying learning materials is growing.
  • Interest in content diversification is particularly on the rise to address under-representation of women in leadership, STEM and the professions and embedding Indigenous and different cultural knowledges in the curriculum. More inclusive texts can create a sense of belonging for under-represented students.

What did the students have to say about it?

Students were increasingly irritated by the restrictive forms of digital access or lack of digital access which put a lot of pressure on them to buy expensive texts. Students compromised and developed workarounds to try and get full time access to their readings. The students were also asked how diverse and representative their textbooks were. Here’s what some of them said.

S09: “It [content]’s not representative of anyone.  The photographs tend to be dominated by white people for a start and they don’t look Australian. Most of the time I think they just use stock photo library. And the content is very often very Eurocentric so you don’t get input from a lot of scholarly material that’s out there from Asia or India and there’s an enormous amount of Indian work on [topic X] for instance.”

S07 said “barely women are mentioned. It’s all about the men. Even the textbook for retail management, which is a female dominated workforce, did not have women visible in it.”

S02 also noted the under-representation of women in her Business texts generally, particularly in Finance and pointed out that while there wasn’t an active exclusion of women, nor was there equal recognition for their achievements.

“I do feel that business is kind of a male-dominated field…they don’t want to exclude females. But they do not recognize them as well, kind of like that.” (S02)

S04 noted there were no Asian women and no black people in her Business textbooks which didn’t represent the reality of who ran successful businesses: “it’s a little bit unfair but I think because the men … They can do really well, but I think women can do it as well as they can.”

S06 also notes gender imbalance in business texts, generally they “have men, men and men again”; also gave very specific examples of lack of cultural diversity, ie “Nelson Mandela” is missing as a business/comms leader in the textbook.

S08 noted a lack of LGBTQI+ representation and made the distinction between recognising others from different backgrounds, and actually hearing from them.

“There’s been talk of people from diverse backgrounds, but very little input from people from diverse backgrounds. I’m a part of the LGBTQI+ community as well and there’s definitely been no mention of that at any point, which is somewhat disappointing but not exactly surprising.” (S08)

What would often strike me during student interviews was the sad low expectations students had of their textbooks. They tended to just expect that their textbooks would not represent the perspectives and knowledge of people of colour, indigenous people or gay people. But on the contrary, where students did have an experience with a more diverse reading list they preferred it, felt better prepared for their profession, and could provide clearer comparisons with what was missing from their non-diverse readings. So perhaps the more inclusive textbooks and learning experiences we provide, the more students will have higher standards and thus be expecting… more inclusive textbooks and learning experiences?

Next week: I’ll share some examples of what academics are doing to update and diversify their curriculum eg. writing open textbooks and putting together more diverse reading lists



Category list: progress report, research


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