Is textbook adoption immoral?

On Friday a higher ed newsletter headline caught my eye: “Outrage over university’s $999 online textbook.” It wasn’t a typo — the book for a 200 level accounting course at University of Louisiana at Lafayette costs that much.

A couple of weeks ago I attended my community college system’s annual summer symposium. The most compelling presentation I heard was from Robin DeRosa of Plymouth State University. She talked about a subject I’d spent a good bit of time thinking about this summer: OERs, or Open Educational Resources. If you haven’t heard of them, here is UNESCO’s definition: “Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.”

Like community colleges around the country, mine is concerned with making education as affordable as possible, and one of our system-wide efforts is to make OERs a priority. I put together a LibGuide for my campus so that faculty can see some choices and learn about how to adopt/adapt/create their own, and I have found some faculty are already doing this. So I was already an OER believer.

Novelist Paul Harding speaks of writing so readers will think “That’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.” That was how I felt, listening to DeRosa. I already knew much of what she said — students often don’t have a plan for textbook costs like they do for tuition, 2/3 of students report either dropping a class because of expensive textbooks or not buying a textbook because of cost, students who can’t afford textbooks do worse in their classes, and textbook costs have risen more than healthcare.

But then she delivered the words I knew but hadn’t heard said that way before: we’re preventing access to knowledge by continuing to require traditional textbooks, and for those of us in “public” education (in NH, the university system where DeRosa works only receives 10% of its funds from state appropriations) this is a moral issue. She wondered aloud, how can educators require our students can’t afford, in good conscience? How can we support a system that is inhibiting the transmission of knowledge?

And then she went on to describe how she worked on an OER early American literature book collaboratively with her students. This work is known as open pedagogy, and really appeals to me as exactly what education should be about: students not as consumers, but agents of their own education, synthesizing what they learn in work that demonstrates not only mastery, but application of their new understanding to a real world problem or question. Our son was fortunate to have a professor, Patricia Siplon, who was ahead of the curve on this at St. Michael’s College and a few years ago, he was in her class on the politics of HIV/AIDS, where the final project was to write a chapter for a textbook she planned to use with future classes. That’s open pedagogy: learning, synthesizing and producing knowledge, collaboratively.

DeRosa’s class’s anthology is now a Rebus project and she predicts that by the time it is finished later this year, it will replace traditional print anthologies sold in college bookstores around the world. Rebus is a place where people come together to work on OERs. I am hopeful that this is the future of textbooks. Librarians’ role in OERs and open pedagogy is simple. We just need to do what we already do best: teach the research skills that help faculty and students seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and then collect, index, and make accessible the knowledge creation happening on our campuses.

 

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Pay as you read textbooks?

I recently came across a fascinating interview at Publishing Perspectives with Max Basaraba, founder of  bookstep. The company aims to help college students take charge of  textbook pricing with a pay-as-you-read model. You can see how it works at bookstep’s website. The basic idea: users get a free 15 minute preview of a book, then pay with credits purchased in increments to read more. The website says the average price of keeping a book in your “library” for a course is $22.41, for the whole school year, $38.77.

Bookstep has a “never overpay guarantee;” if you rack up credits approaching the term or annual fee for your text, you can roll what you’ve already spent into that price. Texts are accessible on any device connected to the internet, stored “in the cloud.” Students or teachers can also store, share or sell content (notes, lectures, study guides, etc.), and connect online with other bookstep users to study together or ask questions.

As a parent and a former student, I think it sounds brilliant not to pay thousands of dollars for textbooks. As a writer who tracks publishing trends, I wonder if this model could kill printed textbooks. As a reference librarian who sees college kids working to help pay for their educations and jockeying for time and space to study in groups, I believe bookstep is providing a needed service.

My son took a French class that covered only four chapters of a textbook which cost nearly $200. With bookstep he could have used just what he needed at a much lower cost. Printed textbooks are so expensive I can see debt-laden students and parents flocking to a truly affordable digital format.