Will textbook publishers go the way of ice delivery?

eLearning Caucus organizes discussion on textbook-free degree program, lowering costs with open educational resources

textbook-publishing-openWashington, D.C. — A Virginia community college is piloting a textbook-free degree program comprised entirely of open educational resources (OER) — from textbooks to the program itself, the components of which will be released for use by other institutions.

Tidewater Community College is still in its first year of the planned two-year pilot, but its vice president for academic affairs, Daniel DeMarte, addressed congressional staffers Monday during a panel discussion organized by the congressional eLearning Caucus.

“We’ve found that the open educational courses are on par or better than our traditional courses,” DeMarte said. “And all that content will be put into Creative Commons. With that content out there and us sharing what we learn, it’s not a steep path for others to do what we did. I see lots of potential.”

Open educational resources are learning materials released under an open license that allows for their free use and repurposing. The resources can be full courses, videos, lesson plans, videos, quizzes — virtually any tool that assists in learning.

But many open education conversations are generally focused on textbooks, especially on Capitol Hill, where open access is a major part of the Affordable Textbook Act introduced in the Senate last year. That was certainly the case Monday, at the sixth event organized by the eLearning Caucus to help inform members of congress about the issues surrounding online education.

Since its creation, the caucus, headed by Congressman Jared Polis, D-Col., and Congresswoman Kristi Noem, R-S.D., has seemed stagnant, only organizing four events in eighteen months. In recent weeks, however, the group has picked up steam. Monday’s panel, the second in two months, coincided with Open Education Week.

In addition to discussing Tidewater’s experimental business degree, the panelists stressed the various benefits of open educational resources.

In the last decade, the price of college textbooks has risen by 82 percent, triple the rate of inflation during that time, according to the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, which moderated the event.

(Next page: What effect would OER have on the textbook industry?)

“Textbooks are the largest out-of-pocket expense for students and families,” said Ethan Senack, higher education associate for student advocacy group U.S. PIRG. “Sixty five percent of students have said they skipped buying a textbook, and students say that the costs have affected what classes they take. The price of textbooks may be undermining the quality of their education.”

The problem, Senack said, is that five or so publishers control more than 80 percent of the market and students have very little choice in what they are able to purchase. Unique to the textbook industry, the primary consumers (the students) are generally told by a middle man (the instructors) exactly what they can purchase.

“There is no consumer choice,” Senack said. “For the students, there is no option for a cheaper alternative, no opportunity to regulate the market.”

Open educational resources give students more control over the learning materials they use, the panelists argued, and drastically lower costs. As there are already so many high quality, free resources in existence, the main hurdle facing universities who want to create programs similar to Tidewater is just one of perception, DeMarte said.

He suggested that administrations hoping to take advantage of OER keep the faculty engaged in the process and with the OER community through conferences, online resources, and the knowledge of college librarians.

“Librarians have a key role in this as the central point of contact,” DeMarte said.

While satisfied with the panel’s explanation how OER could benefit students, one staffer in attendance expressed concern about the effect widespread adoption could have on the textbook publishing industry.

David Wiley, found of Lumina Learning and an open access advocate for nearly two decades, said it’s up to the publishers to adapt. He compared the changes in publishing to that of the ice delivery industry when at-home refrigeration became mainstream.

Ice companies, he said, were the best suited to take advantage of that transition.

“But they got confused about what their business was,” Wiley said. “They thought their business was delivering ice when their business was helping people keep stuff cold. If you’re confused to what your business actually is and are not willing to engage in that transitional thinking, it’s probably not happy days for you in the future.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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