from the Library of Maura

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse: Thinking about OERs and Textbook Affordability

March 31st, 2017 by Maura A. Smale · No Comments

I am on sabbatical this semester, and one of the things I’m working on is a qualitative study of undergraduate attitudes and practices around their course reading. I’m interviewing 10 students each at 3 CUNY colleges to learn more about how they get access to their course reading, what their process is when they read, and how they prioritize and manage their reading assignments. A preliminary literature search last year as I was proposing this project revealed lots of sources about strategies to encourage students to do the reading, and recent reports by the Student PIRGs among others have discussed the link between high (and increasing) textbook costs and student access to course readings. But I wanted to learn more about the nuances in students’ reading practices from students themselves.

I’m nearly finished with interviews though I still have transcription, coding, and analysis to go. But one particular data point that many* students shared has been nagging at me so much that I’m not willing to wait to write about it: the requirement in some courses for students to purchase access to an online bundled textbook/homework platform in order to take the class. Some of these platforms include additional tutorials or other curricular materials. Some offer a few pricing tiers, e.g. a lower cost for homework only than for homework + etextbook than for homework + etextbook + print textbook. All are required, that is to say that students must submit their homework via the platform in order to participate in the class.

* How many? I’m not sure yet, I haven’t analyzed the data! But more than one.

This is not a completely new thing in textbook publishing, and indeed is the topic of a PIRG report from last fall (which is on my to read list). And I’m fairly far away from my own college experience at this point, too, so I’m willing to concede a little bit of the fear of the newfangled in my reaction. But I’m frankly horrified by the potential for increasing reliance on these textbook/homework platforms. Among my many concerns:

– Ultimately, some students will not be able to take classes in which these platforms are the only way to access their required homework/assignments, because they cannot afford to buy access to those platforms. This is especially relevant at CUNY, where 58.3% of our undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants and 38.5% have an annual household income of less than $20,000.

– College students are (and have ever been) savvy about getting their course materials. I’m hearing a wide range of strategies from the students I interviewed, from buying their books used at online or physical booksellers, to buying from other students, to borrowing from friends or classmates, to renting an online or print textbook. There’s no way to borrow a homework platform code from your friend, or to sell the code to another student after you’ve finished the class.

– Many college libraries don’t offer course texts for their students, but at CUNY most of us do. At City Tech we have some (not all) textbooks on reserve for in-library use and we move older editions into the circulating collections for students to check out for longer periods. There is no way for the library to offer access to homework platform codes, since they are tied individually to each student.

I know, I know, publishers gotta publish, and capitalism exists. But textbook prices have risen well above the rate of inflation, and with the rise of open educational resources (OER) it’s clear that publishers are exploring alternative ways to keep their profits up. Earlier this week I had an exchange on Twitter with a few library colleagues about a column on Inside Higher Ed that suggests that OERs are not nearly as effective as are personalized learning systems (another flavor of textbook platform). The author posits that:

[I]t is misguided to assume that the difference between open educational resources and paid resources is merely one of cost. […] The reality is that there are simply no open resources that are as flexible, reliable or impactful as the newest generation of education resources.

I was not surprised to see that the author is on the advisory council of a large textbook publishing corporation. I would counter that the negative impact on graduation rates when a student cannot take a course required in their major because they cannot afford to pay for the textbook platform code is far worse than the lack of personalization features in freely-available OERs. Our students are literally paying the price, and it’s a price that many of them cannot afford.

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