Solutions Manual Solutions

Black and white midcentury photograph of Chinese woman scientist in white lab coat gesturing in front of a chalkboard full of data
Geneticist Anna Chao Pai photographed by
Ted Burrows, mid-20th-century.
No known copyright restrictions.
(Smithsonian.)

Solutions manuals are turning out to be one of the BIG challenges of COVID teaching – most instructors are accustomed to having students buy their own textbooks, but are still pretty likely to be putting a solutions manual on physical course reserve. (I.e., making sure there’s a copy in the library that students can check out if they need to check their answers and don’t have a lot of money available.)

If the whole class is going to be taught remotely, and students won’t be on campus, or where (as at my workplace) physical reserves are simply not being offered this fall, instructors are in many cases suddenly contemplating how to make sure all students can equitably access the solutions for their problem sets. Many of them are considering whether they can scan the solutions manual and share that with their students.

Fair use does cover making educational copies for students – but rarely extends to making many reproductions of all of a currently-commercially-available work, especially where the main market for the original work is limited to the people you’d be making copies for. (On the other hand, most solutions manuals are for -extremely factual- disciplines; do/should they bear a copyright at all? If they do, is it only in the selection and arrangement of the problems?) Personally, I think fair use may be more flexible in the context of a public health emergency, but that is an activist position. So, legal copying is, at least, a little complicated.

Leaving aside the legality of scanning the whole solutions manual, what else can an instructor do? Well, they could make copies of just a few illustrative solutions for each set. They could work through some problems in recordings, and/or in interactive online settings. Either of these are more likely to be fair use, and/or more likely to be avoiding copying the copyrightable parts of the solutions manual.

Instructors and students may also find copies of the solutions manual online – but for Various Reasons, it’s probably not great to expect those files to be stable long-term.

The real problem here is that the textbooks and solutions manuals are inequitably priced to begin with. COVID remote teaching is merely highlighting a problem that already existed. So why not tackle the real problem?

Switch to an open textbook! Or put together pieces of several open-licensed books if there is no single one that meets your needs as-is – https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks

White woman with long multi-hued hair faces a whiteboard, working out a math problem
Maths Outreach CC BY UCL
Mathematical & Phys Sciences
Photog Alejandro Lopez

That’s a pretty tall order, especially when classes are about to start (or have already started) on many US campuses. So perhaps instead stick with your existing textbook, but make new problem sets? This is a project that can be shared with students – flipping assignments from solving problems to setting them may result in deeper learning for many. (Remember, students may own copyrights in their creative works here, so if you’re aiming to reuse student contributions, make sure to approach that equitably as well. At my institution, you can set expectations for sharing or reuse of student work in a syllabus, but personally I think that is only ethical if students have a no-excuses-no-penalty way to opt out of sharing their work. If you don’t provide that, they’re not learning the lessons you might want them to learn about scholarly sharing, respect for authorship, and credit.)

And then you can share your open solutions with everyone else, and no one else will have to deal with this next semester!

(Isn’t it odd and surprising how copyright acts as a barrier to learning sometimes? It’s almost as if proprietary excludability isn’t always that great for advancing science and knowledge! Perhaps there are lessons to draw here related to research publishing practices?? Possibly??? /s)

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