Open Textbooks, Cost, and Value

On Thursday, I heard an inspiring talk by David Ernst of the University of Minnesota. He’s the CIO of their College of Education and Human Development and an open educational resource activist. His talk to at UND focused on the importance of open textbooks and was part of a larger “open educational resources seminar” put on by UND’s working group for open access resources. 

The main thrust of Ernst’s talk was that textbooks cost too much and this has had real implication on the quality of education at American universities. You can check out his slides from the talk here. He makes the point that textbooks were the one area of cost in higher education that faculty could control. While I bristled a bit at the suggestion that somehow faculty should feel obligated to solve a problem (that is not of their own making) because they can, I do think his call for action is a reasonable one. No one really benefits from the high cost of textbooks except publishers who actively work against the best interest of the academy in their quest for larger profit margins. He then showed a series of short videos that reinforced the idea that textbook costs were a problem for students, and this led students to make decisions that often worked against the educational goals of the course. 

This is where I began to rankle a bit. I think (and in a very engaging conversation with him afterward, more or less confirmed) that Prof. Ernst conflated the cost of the textbook with its value. As I told him, my experience was that students are just as willing to not read a free or a very inexpensive textbook (and I provide one in some of my classes) as a textbook that cost more money. Moreover, a video that shows a student remarking that he sometimes had to wait until late at night to use a textbook that he shared with a few other students seemed a bit disingenuous. After all, college students have access to copiers, scanners, and – most importantly – smart phones which make it possible to copy and distribute printed material instantly and at a minuscule cost (or, if nothing else, using technologies already at hand). While many of these techniques are strictly illegal, I can’t believe that something as relatively arcane as copyright law (particularly unenforceable copyright law!) would stop a student from making a copy of a book for personal use especially when the alternative is doing poorly in a class or losing out on precious sleep. 

My suspicion, then, is that cost alone is not the factor that is driving frustration over textbook costs and leading students to avoid buying them or engaging in strategies that might appear academically questionable. I think the issue is that textbooks are declining in value to students. Even just 20 years ago, textbooks were invaluable resources for basic information. A history student relied on textbooks for such basic things as names, dates, and maps, and maybe snippets of narrative that do not come from lecture. Today, our putative history student can find much more, and frequently better organized information on the web. And, I’d contend that this is true not just of history students, but of many students in introductory level classes. Moreover, as faculty move more toward problem-based learning or other active learning techniques which ask students to do more than to dutifully follow a narrative in a textbook or complete problem sets. In other words, the more textbooks become sources for basic information, the less value they’ll have for a student and the less inclined the student will be to spend money on them. 

Of course, the declining value of textbooks to students is something that open access resources can impact because many open access resources are easier to divide, modify, remix, and repurpose for a range of educational environments. The downside of this approach, however, is that for universities, and faculty in particular, to take on the development of open educational resources, the funding has to come from somewhere. Fortunately, the state of North Dakota has appropriated over $100,000 to fund the adoption of open educational resources. This is good.

The downside, of course, is that the move to open educational resources and the process of re-valuing the textbook for the 21st century, is not something that can be solved by a one-time infusion of resources. Adopting open textbooks, for example, is not enough. For open educational resources to make a meaningful impact on higher education – and this goes beyond just lowering textbook costs for students and gets to positively impacting learning outcomes – there will have to be a sustained investment in their development, revision, and implementation. Open educational resources is a dynamic ecosystem that requires us to return to the pool at least as much as we consume from it. Cutting publisher profits from textbook costs passes on immediate savings to students, but production costs and revision costs will remain and require subsidy from across higher education. And adoption and adaptation costs will devolve to individual institutions and, if current trends continue, students.

This isn’t to suggest that Ernst’s talk was bad or that the seminar was unhelpful, but it is to point out that however rhetorically useful our focus on student cost is (and there’s no doubt that this rhetorical position got the North Dakota University System funding for this initiative), it is not a realistic understanding of how open educational resources could transform higher education. Cutting out publisher profits from the cost of higher education will not eliminate production and revision costs, for example. Building a better textbook will involve investment in the actual improvement of higher education. In recent years, this kind of systematic, long-term, educational investment has become rare.

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