Questions, Timing, and Possibilities
In an era in which ebooks, ejournals, and other electronic versions of information products have created complicated, rigid contractual nightmares, OER sounds like nirvana. Getting these projects underway has been aided by support from foundations—particularly the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has given more than $110 million in the past 10 years. Students seem pleased with OER alternatives. In an EDUCAUSE study (educause.edu/library/resources/understanding-what-higher-education-needs-e-textbooks-educauseinternet2-pilot), 57% of students wished that their instructors used OERs more; only 10% asked for fewer OERs.
However, deep pockets are not the only path used to get OER into the hands of educators and learners alike. Ten years ago, a resourceful hedge fund analyst decided to use Yahoo’s Doodle notepad to tutor his cousin in math. Soon others sought his help, which led Salman Khan to set up Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) as a free, open, educational repository of mini-lectures, study materials, and practice exercises in more than 25 languages and on a wide variety of subjects. The Academy estimates that about 10 million students each month use the materials, achieving its mission to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”
MOOCs form another type of open educational resource, and while experiencing some fits and starts in the early stages, the idea persists as major universities experiment with ways to bring some type of higher education freely to the world. Many MOOCs are online versions of traditional college classes, and many collaborative efforts—edX, Coursera, for example—are being used to help universities find the organizational models to move the technology forward. Although initially universities were very positive about the potential for MOOCs, reality has set in, lowering the level of hype and causing some reflection and perhaps retooling. In December, an article by Susan Adams in Forbes asked “Are MOOCs Really a Failure?” (forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/12/11/are-moocs-really-a-failure). The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education released a study finding that users often drop off after the first week or two of a course, and that few users persist to the end. In its study, only an average 4% completed the courses.
Many see MOOCs as less viable as the “future of education” (if the classes are all free, who pays for education and research to sustain these classes?) than in moving universities into more blended use of technology in existing coursework and seeking new ways to better use technology’s intellectual riches to improve learning and better the world. The lesson learned so far would appear to be that, as with any other major development, MOOCs need more time to grow, mature, and develop.
Broward College (Davie, Fla.) auxiliary service associate vice president George Masforroll has been instrumental in moving his institution to textbook alternatives. “Even with all the changes, the reliance on the physical textbook will never go away, but we will continue to see its role diminish,” he predicts. Noting that prior to the advent of the internet, printed texts could only be made one-size-fits-all, Masforroll says technology is allowing the development of custom approaches. “Here at Broward, we started the transition by specifically targeting departments, like Mathematics, where we had interest and we had an existing motivating factor of wanting to increase student success rates. Today, we use the LMS [learning management system] as a shell; content is no longer static and we can easily add assessment tools, use video lectures and other content.” Masforroll adds that Broward doesn’t believe the Replacement Theory of Clayton Christensen holds here. “One technology won’t entirely replace another.” He feels different formats will continue to co-exist. However, as he sees it, “The roles and reliance on each will continue to change. Dictating format is being overtaken by the ability to customize options at the local level.”
Traditional Vendors Working for Change
Many commercial vendors are going through the same self-questioning and experimentation that academics are undertaking. William Chesser, vice president for business development at Vital Source Technologies (an Ingram Content Group company), spoke with Online Searcher about its work in moving into the new textbook era. “Many large institutions are implementing e-textbooks across their programs not only as a cost control measure, but even more importantly, as an innovation that can provide usage data and integration services that can help support student success,” he explains. Noting that Vital Source has been doing some of its own surveys of user acceptance, he adds, “Periodically in the press, one sees surveys suggesting that a large percentage of students simply prefer print textbooks to digital.” He argues the flaw with these surveys is that it is not assured that the participants have ever actually been exposed to an etextbook. “Participants are being asked to compare an item that they are immensely familiar with—the print text—to an item they typically have little or no experience with—the digital textbook.” Chesser says, “It should be no surprise that students often elect what they know over an unknown alternative.”
Vital Source found a very different market landscape in polling its user base. “The results were fascinating. For students who have actually used an e-textbook, less than 20% said they would prefer to go back to only print.” In fact, the study found that if the price were the same in each case, and students had an option of print, only digital, or both, when asked, more than 80% said they would take digital in some form, and nearly half (47%) said they would take only digital.
Another issue of key importance at Vital Source is ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) compliance. It sees the ADA as “crucial to the success of any serious etextbook program.” Pricing and user preferences are also key aspects of the Vital Source approach. “If an institution or a learner would rather pay a little less and receive what is essentially ‘rental’ access to their textbook, we believe they should have that option. The technology can present faculty and students with a range of purchase options for a single title.”
Vital Source believes it should be up to the consumer to determine the right balance of cost versus license duration. “There are certainly many disciplines where ongoing access to one’s titles is important, and we support that,” Chesser acknowledges, “but there are just as certainly many courses taken by the average student where the content will not be of enduring interest or value, and digital licensing can easy address that.” He sees the continuing rise of textbook rental in print as emphasizing this point.