I’ve just completed a research project looking into the often used but rarely studied university textbook. It’s been an eye-opening, and at times eye-watering, project hearing from university students and staff about the impact of expensive, digitally unavailable and out of date textbooks. Particularly when the out-of-date aspects include sexist and racist stereotypes, absences and misrepresentations.

It’s also been inspiring hearing what many academics are already doing to adopt free, digital textbooks (“open textbooks”) as well as update their reading lists with diverse views, solutions and voices more suited to today’s global contexts and challenges.

Why it matters

Inclusive texts are important for under-represented students to develop a sense of belonging to the profession and the course. Learning environments that do not promote a positive sense of belonging are associated with greater mental health challenges and poorer academic outcomes.

But our research suggests much wider implications for all students. Students who have experienced diversified reading lists, with multiple knowledge perspectives, felt that they were better prepared for their intended future professions. Staff also considered more representative curricula can enhance graduate outcomes for all students. For example, university textbooks typically lack recognition of Indigenous knowledge, and this means students are missing out on important ways of looking at contemporary problems and societal issues.

As more university teaching goes on-line, it’s harder for teachers to unpack the shortcomings and interpretation of older readings, as some academics told us they do in class. So, it’s even more important to weed out racist and sexist stereotypes in what goes online, and teach students to question and seek out missing views. Library staff are keen to assist academics to locate open textbooks and other open access readings, as well as locate a better gender and socio-cultural balance of authors and views.

When so many institutions are trying to renew curriculum with both global and Indigenous perspectives, enabling diverse, low/no cost open access texts and resources just makes strategic and policy sense. We can do better by our students than perpetuating out-of-date sexist and racist texts. And OER can make the curriculum renewal journey a cost effective and sustainable one.

Dr Sarah Lambert, Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE), Deakin University; Chief Investigator of the NCSEHE funded “Open textbooks as social justice” research project [email protected] @SarahLambertOz


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