By DAVID MYTON

Western Sydney University’s free e-text initiative – launched in first semester this year – no doubt has been noted by the National Union of Students, which last year began a campaign to make textbooks cheaper while also calling for the removal of import restrictions on books.

NUS national welfare officer Robby Magyar told The Melbourne Age that some students dropped subjects or changed their degrees because textbooks were so expensive.

Science, maths and economics textbooks could cost $300 to $800 a semester, law students might spend $165 on a single book, while nursing students spend $2000 on textbooks at the start of semester, he said.

In some cases the additional financial pressures may force students to quit their studies and leave university.

Meanwhile, writing in The Australian Darragh O’Keeffe reports that open access textbooks are emerging as “the latest tool in student engagement”, noting that the Australian National University has so far published six titles – in law, languages and botany.

The institution had seen “extraordinarily high use of the titles” with more than 27,000 downloads this year, said University librarian Roxanne Missingham.

Missing­ham added that extensive research overseas had shown open access textbooks were associated with higher grades, greater retention and better completion rates.

“A study at Virginia State University school of business found that students using open textbooks tended to have higher grades and lower failing and withdrawal rates than those in courses that did not.”

Today a growing number of e-books can be accessed free online: Project Gutenberg, for example, which offers some 53,000 titles; while DOAB invites academic publishers to provide metadata of their Open Access books in a service that can be integrated into university library online catalogues.

As Roxanne Missingham explains, this is part of an international trend for Open Educational Resources – including textbooks and online lectures available free online under an open licence.

It encompasses hundreds of projects including Khan Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, and Washington State’s community colleges Open Course Library.

However, it appears that not everyone is enamoured with the idea of digital texts.

Dr Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, says the move away from print materials could be detrimental to student learning, and may go against many students’ preferences for how to learn.

Education Dive reports that Baron’s research – which included more than 400 students at universities worldwide – indicated 92% of respondents said they learned better when using print.

“We know if you ask students, if cost were not an issue, what would you choose for reading, that the significant majority would say print,” she said.

“What this means to me is we have an interesting and problematic disconnect between what students are feeling and what school systems and universities are encouraging.”