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Technology Meets the Textbook: The Disruption of Education Deepens
By
Volume 38, Number 3 - May/June 2014

Affordability

Following up on the etext successes at the University of Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) co-sponsored a bill, The Affordable College Textbook Act, with fellow Democratic Senator Al Franken (Minn.) that would create a competitive grant programs to create textbooks that would be licensed as OERs, freely available to anyone who wanted to access them. Spurred on by a June 2013 General Accounting Office report (gao.gov/assets/660/655066.pdf) finding that textbook pricing had risen in the past 10 years more than three times the rate of inflation, a companion bill was filed in the House as well.

Despite the deadlocked Congress, there is strong support from organizations such as the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, National Association of College Bookstores, National Association of Graduate and Professional Studies, and the OpenCourseWare Consortium. One cosponsor of the House bill, Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), noted, “When buying a textbook becomes a barrier to education you know something has to be changed and that’s exactly what we want to achieve with the Affordable College Textbook Act. … [T]his legislation will lessen the high cost of an important commodity for learning while helping students save money.”

The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, effective 2010, required that textbook publishers clearly disclose to faculty the cost of a textbook to their students; that schools publish textbook information—including pricing—in course catalogs; and that publishers offer unbundled supplemental materials so students had choices.While no panacea for the larger issues in college costs, the Affordable College Textbook Act would do the following:

  • Create grant programs to support pilot projects at colleges and universities to develop and expand the use of open textbooks with priority for those programs that would achieve the highest savings for students.
  • Ensure any open textbooks or educational materials created using program funds will be freely and easily accessible to the public.
  • Require those getting funding to publicly report on the effectiveness of the program in achieving savings for students.
  • Require the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the impact of this work and update price trends by 2017.

Although studies have found some early resistance to etextbooks—and many systems share some of the same usability issues as vendor-based ebook platforms—the key underlying value depends on finding ways to incorporate digital technology into the delivery of course content in an effective way that improves learning while reigning in costs. Just as transitions are underway with ebooks, ejournals, and other research materials (which are still miles away from perfection), it may be some time before satisfactory educational materials are achieved. An inevitable learning curve is just beginning, and cost is not the only issue at hand.

“It is hard to compare the monetary value of paper versus digital textbooks right now,” Jan Cheetham, University of Wisconsin research and instructional technologies consultant, believes. “The ephemerality of an etext rental, loss of resale value, lack of interactive features that take advantage of the online milieu, generally poor performance on tablets/mobile devices, substandard navigation—are all shortcomings of etexts that students noted in our pilots. These weaknesses detract from their value. Students in our pilots said texts are worth one third or less of the price they would pay for a paper textbook.”

Today’s college students have grown up with advanced gaming media and their expectations are high for quality, engagement, and enjoyment. We know that etextbooks must be far more than just online versions of printed texts. Etextbooks may never achieve this level of sophistication, engagement, or gamification; however, today, academics are beginning the long process of experimentation and development to test the possibilities. How these new resources will eventually be developed, presented, and integrated into coursework and classroom learning is still unknown.

The Only Certainty Is Change Itself

“Perched on a hillside overlooking a ravine,” an article in the Wall Street Journal reports, “the five-floor, 18,000-square-foot house-cum-concert hall looks like an accordion in motion, with undulating walls of wood and floor-to-ceiling glass” (“An ‘Accordion’ of Wood & Glass”Sara Lin, The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2009;online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB123872378357585295). James Stewart, described as “eccentric” in the article, “is a top-shelf classical violinist who earned his millions writing calculus textbooks.”

Yes, that’s right: a millionaire textbook author with a $24 million “wonder” home that has been featured in Architectural Digest. An esteemed mathematician with strong university ties and academic credentials, Stewart’s books have been renowned for the quality of the exercises and the careful development of themes and concepts. Calculus, now in its 7th edition, comes in at more than $281.95 retail and begat a series of books on the subject covering the entire sequence of college calculus classes (cengagesites.com/academic/?site=4993&SecID=3611). Is Stewart a poster boy for the ills of academe and traditional publishing? Are these unfair charges to a highly successful academic with a gift for presentation working with an established for-profit commercial publisher? Whatever your views are, this example is often brought up as quid pro quo for the need for the OER alternative.

The OER model, just like open access for journals and books, is becoming the key technology in this transition. By allowing texts, videos, articles, and other learning materials to be distributed and created online under a license that grants advance permission for anyone to freely use, adapt, and share these resources, the OER model seems to offer the most advantages and fewest cost issues. SPARC, a major supporter, now has an OER program director, Nicole Allen, who notes, “It is time to focus on solutions that deliver meaningful, long-term savings for students, and OERs are the most effective path forward.” The Students PIRG group recently released a study which found that switching from traditional textbooks to OER would save students 80–100% of their textbook costs (“A Cover-to-Cover Solution: How Open Source Textbooks Are the Path to Textbook Affordability”; studentpirgs.org/reports/cover-cover-solution).

Gagan Biyani, founder of Udemy, sees major challenges facing the textbook arena. “First, we’re dealing with an enterprise-style buying process. The textbook publishers are also facing a major innovator’s dilemma. As a result, the costs have not come to parity (aka you have to buy the same textbooks but now you also need an iPad or etextbook reader). Second, it’s a much smaller market (in terms of numbers of consumers), so you need greater penetration to make the economics work.” Biyani believes what we need is “to provide a digital textbook experience that is so kick ass that it encourages consumers (students at universities) to switch. … [I]f you want to know what will cause the ‘tipping point,’ I think it’s all about media and pricing” (“Why Hasn’t the Tech Industry Disrupted the Textbook Industry Yet?” Gagan Biyani, Forbes, Oct. 28, 2013; forbes.com/sites/quora/2013/10/28/why-hasnt-the-tech-industry-disrupted-the-textbook-industry-yet).

At the same time, technology and financing issues remain. At Alamo Colleges in San Antonio last October, faculty offering etextbooks, smartboards, and other “smart classroom” features found that lack of wireless access and an inadequate technology infrastructure made teaching nearly impossible. The $14 billion U.S. textbook industry sounds very impressive, but is still only 1% of annual educational spending. In the past 30 years, textbooks have risen in cost by an estimated 800%, making this a major issue for students and colleges, but until recently not as major an issue as competitiveness and other education-based issues.

Higher education has always been a “hot-bed” of technological change and innovation; K–12 has not. K–12 education is tied closely to school boards and other political entities that tend to be slower to embrace change and usually mired with multiple budget demands. These entities are not necessarily well-informed on issues of educational theory, policy, or technology and remain invested in current processes. K–12 systems are also fraught with budgetary problems, as levies often fail, and statewide budgets decline. For example, in 2009–10, North Carolina funded schools with $111 million for textbooks; this school year, the budget was $23 million—or an estimated $14 per student. Not enough for any quality product, even OER.

Libraries can play a critical role in this process. “[By] focusing on open textbooks and open educational resource publishing,” Oberlander believes, “libraries are strengthening the position of our faculty and colleges at a time of rapid changes in higher education.” As he points out, libraries experienced the rapidly evolving learning environment early on and notes, “to sustain the connection of faculty author to reader, teacher to learner, librarians are tapping into their expertise as connector and curator to provide faculty authors and teachers useful services that meet the critical needs of today.”

Rice University professor—and founder of both Connexions and OpenStax College—Richard Baraniuk tells Online Searcher readers, “The marketplace is undergoing dramatic change.” He sees the textbook publishing industry shifting from a consolidated model in which one party has proprietary ownership of content, learning data, and commerce to a distributed model in which there will be multiple players—both nonprofit and for-profit—that are highly specialized to meet learning needs in a variety of ways. This distribution model will include digital, print, and adaptive technology providers. Baraniuk explains, “This new model will be much more efficient, improve quality, and drive down costs for the community. It would be unwise,” he adds, “to predict the death of the traditional printed textbook; however, the current business model is broken and will not survive the coming changes.”

As Wells Fargo research analyst Trace Urdan notes, “Everybody’s waiting for the Facebook of education to come along” (“Can Startups Disrupt the Slow-Moving Education Market?” Katrina Schwartz, News Fix, Oct. 8, 2013; blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2013/10/07/can-disruptive-technology-change-the-way-kids-learn). More likely, the change will take years to evolve—and as technology changes, it will never really be complete, but continue to evolve with changing needs and opportunities. But change is coming, a much needed and welcomed change, even if it ends up being—like ebooks—a long and winding road.


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Nancy K.Herther is the anthropology/sociology librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities Campus.

 

Comments? Contact the editors at editors@onlinesearcher.net

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