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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Dynamic Textbook Project may stem course material costs

The UC Davis Financial Aid office claims that books and supplies at UC Davis cost around $1,620 yearly. Textbooks are the third-highest expense in college, and prices are increasing at an average rate of six percent per year, according to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office — twice the current inflation rate, which is at 2.27 percent.

Delmar Larsen, a UC Davis professor of chemistry, spearheads the Dynamic Textbook Project, an endeavor which could potentially stem financial burdens from buying textbooks.

The project is a joint effort among six different schools: UC Davis at the forefront, Sonoma State University, Diablo Valley College, Contra Costa College, the University of Minnesota Morris and Hope College. Students and faculty contribute to its development, whether through monetary donations or content creation.

According to the project’s biannual progress report, it “consists of seven pseudo-independently operating and interconnected ‘STEMWikis’ that focus on augmenting education in separate STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] fields.”

Students can log into the different wikis — ChemWiki, BioWiki, MathWiki, SolarWiki, GeoWiki, PhysWiki and StatWiki — to read up on different topics. The articles read like textbooks and even include examples to help students understand certain concepts.

The pages have varying content. Some feature javascript programs allowing the user to learn interactively.

ChemWiki is currently the most visited UC Davis subdomain; its pages garner 14.19 percent of the ucdavis.edu domain’s visitors.

The project received its first major funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) this past summer, with a grant for $250,000. Larsen emphasized that prior to this, the project had only a budget of “around $8,000.”

Larsen said that since the NSF grant was only given to the six-year project recently, their funding was not a major factor in the initial success of the program.

Similar projects such as MIT’s Open Courseware program and the Open Stax College initiated by Rice University exist; however, as Larsen said, these have had budgets much greater than STEMWiki’s.

Open Courseware’s budget is at $3.5 million a year according to their website, and Open Stax is funded by several organizations, including the Hewlett Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

Despite less funding, the largest of the STEMWikis, ChemWiki, is nearing its final stages of completion, and with over three million visitors a month, it is proving to be a successful venture.

Chantel Karim, a second-year biology major working on the wiki, explained that it was a “learning experience, going through all the terms and getting to know the system.”

Most of the students working on the project are science majors; however, anyone is welcome to help, whether in editing content for accuracy or even for grammar.

In Spring Quarter 2014, Larsen will initiate the pilot experiment; he will teach two CHE 2C classes back-to-back. One class will use the traditional textbook, and the other will use only ChemWiki.

The General Chemistry textbook by Ralph H. Petrucci costs $210 purchased new at the UC Davis Bookstore. Larsen hopes to stem this cost for chemistry students by attempting to prove that ChemWiki is a viable alternative to the General Chemistry textbook.

He said he believes that by the end of next school year, ChemWiki may be able to supplant existing textbooks, but it will be a matter of gaining enough support from faculty and students to make it a reality.

The STEMWikis share similar characteristics with open source textbooks. These books are available free to students and teachers to use from the internet because the license is not owned by a publishing company.

To raise awareness of options for affordable education, ASUCD Senator Gareth Smythe has advocated the use of open source textbooks.

“Open-source education is one way to address this problem,” Smythe said.

As an ASUCD Senator as well as a UC Davis student, he has said that he is adamant that more affordable options be available.

Though open-source books are available and are free, the person with the final say on whether to use these free textbooks or to use traditional books is the instructor.

STEMWikis, though like open source textbooks, are more similar to a library of textbooks. Instead of being one textbook, they have the potential to be a multitude.

Potential contributors must first speak with Delmar Larsen, but in essence, anyone who wishes to put their work into the wikis can do so. This is what enables ChemWiki to be a dynamic project; it changes and improves as needed.

Kato Meley, assistant director of course materials at the UC Davis Stores, commented that the ChemWiki project and open source textbooks are “great models.”

“We want to be the aggregator and the provider for educators who want to use open source materials,” Meley said.

The bookstore, according to Meley, should be dynamic and shift with the industry as it changes. It already offers one of the largest rental programs in the country as well as ensuring that a large majority of textbooks it sells are used. It also offers an online price comparison tool through the UC Davis Store’s website.

Similarly, there are other online tools, like Bigwords.com, a website that compares prices and options between every online retailer and can save students money. The Bigwords search tool includes ebook options, rentals and can even factor in buyback prices for those who might sell their books later on.

Bigwords CEO Jeff Sherwood said that his website saves students an average of $1,000 a year.

Using the UC Davis Bookstore’s website, students can view prices for new, used, rentals and used rentals, as well as prices offered in real-time from various sellers such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and others.

Meley said that their mission is to “provide students with the lowest possible price” in obtaining their books and supplies.

Furthermore, Meley said that the bookstore is a non-profit and “all the money [they] make goes directly to student programs.”

“We are not a monopoly, and we are always looking for ways to try to lift the financial burden of expensive textbooks,” Meley said.

At a time when the cost of living and learning, from textbooks, course materials, living expenses, food and to various day-to-day requirements are increasing, knowing every resource available can save money.

There are many different routes UC Davis students could take for affordable education that go beyond just finding the best deal. Resources like ChemWiki and open source textbooks are available, and with enough student and faculty support, might significantly reduce textbook costs.

UC Davis students can get involved in the development of ChemWiki, and ultimately, contribute to the abolition of textbook expenses.


To access the different STEMWikis, visit chemwiki.ucdavis.edu.

To find out how you can contribute to the Dynamic Textbook Project, e-mail dlarsen@ucdavis.edu.



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