Transform higher education — make textbooks free

Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSourceCredit: Julie Leopo/EdSourceGary Michelson and Hal PlotkinOctober 26, 2020Would you pay for a textbook when you could get a better one for free?
The answer coming from many college administrators might surprise you. By embracing a new “embedded in tuition” textbook-pricing scheme and ignoring the benefits of getting textbooks through a freely accessible digital library, many college administrators are burdening students with unnecessary costs while also sacrificing an opportunity for tech-enabled collaborative innovations.
But there is a much less expensive alternative. Open educational resources are teaching and learning resources that reside in the public domain or are released with an intellectual property license that allows their free use and, often, re-purposing as well as continuous improvement with thousands of educators around the globe contributing to their content.
Carefully controlled studies show that such free resources, which includes textbooks, courses and even entire degree-granting programs, clearly and reliably generate results equal to or better than traditional textbooks at far lower costs.
These resources are freely available for unlimited use online and can also be printed out, as needed, for just the cost of paper and ink.
In a world brimming with knowledge and ideas, just three companies — Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill — control roughly 80% of the college textbook market. Students pay, on average, more than $1,200 per year for textbooks, according to the College Board, and often far more in some Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs.
Textbook costs rose roughly three times the overall rate of inflation for decades until market pressures generated by the open educational resources movement recently helped reverse that trend. The loss of pricing power sent textbook publishers scrambling for a new way to protect their profits, which led to a pricing model now gaining traction.
The new scheme bundles the cost of textbooks into tuition. Proponents say this allows colleges to negotiate lower prices and enables students to pay for textbooks using financial aid.
But, by predetermining faculty options, it threatens to gradually turn college instructors into little more than cogs in publisher-owned content, delivery and assessment systems, making them more like the clerks who help shoppers use self-service checkout lines.
The automatic textbook billing model hides charges for textbooks and related materials in a student’s tuition and fees and also locks institutions into quotas for volume pricing rather than treating these expenses as separate items students can purchase wherever they can find the best price or, in the case of open educational resources, no price at all.
Lost in the mix: the opportunity these resources present to create and use shared, technology-based, cost-efficient, continuously improving open learning materials that are more likely to foster pedagogical breakthroughs, such as science experiments with millions of participating students. Also being lost: the ability of colleges to control, or often even calculate, the total cost of instruction.
College students now spend more than $3 billion of their financial aid on course materials. Those expenditures divert scarce funds that hard-pressed students who qualify for financial assistance could otherwise use to pay their rent, transportation costs, medical bills and other costs of attendance, all of which force them to take on debts that often plague them for decades.
A recent study from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, reviewed textbook embedded pricing contracts for textbooks embedded into tuition at 31 colleges affecting more than 700,000 undergraduate students.
Researchers concluded that the agreements:
Fail to deliver any real savings for students,
Reduce faculty and student choice, and
“Give even more power to a handful of big publishing companies.”
Open educational resources, by contrast, are available for free use and augmentation in perpetuity, which enables improvements and customization by instructors. The results are better, more up-to-date learning materials, more engaged instructors and lower costs to students.
The California Legislature recently authorized grants to support the creation of open resources-based, faculty-designed zero-textbook-cost degree programs at community colleges. Twenty-three colleges used the funds to create pathways that enable students to earn degrees without having to pay for their textbooks or online learning materials, which they can keep.
The early data from these grant-funded programs are promising. Grades achieved in zero-textbook-cost courses are higher than those earned in classes using textbooks from commercial publishers. Failing grades are 11% less prevalent, while grades of “A” were 7% more frequent.
Pell grant recipients also scored 7.6% higher than their grades in other courses. Among the differences, with free resources, all students access the learning materials they need on the first day of class. (This rarely happens when students are asked to buy costly textbooks.)
Other factors include reducing the financial burden that forces students to work more hours at a job to afford course materials and the enhanced ability of faculty to customize materials to meet unique student needs.
In one successful example, nonprofit publisher OpenStax, based at Rice University, produces free, high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed college textbooks.
With funding from philanthropic foundations and other sources, OpenStax is now used in more than half of U.S. colleges and universities and in more than 100 countries. The OpenStax library contains nearly 40 free open source textbooks for college and Advanced Placement classes.
When partisan political agreement seems a thing of the past, consider that both the Obama and Trump administrations agree on the effectiveness of open educational resources.
The Obama administration required all educational materials produced for its signature $2 billion-job-training program be produced with open educational resources licenses so that students would be able to “access free educational materials, include complete courses, and supportive services designed to help them accomplish their educational and job-training goals.”
Likewise, the Trump administration’s 2017 National Education Technology Plan also declared that such resources increase equity, keep content relevant, empower teachers and save money.
Now is the time to give all students access to continuously improving open educational resources rather than allow commercial publishers to hide unnecessary costs in ever-rising tuition bills.
Gary K. Michelson, M.D., is founder and co-chair of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, which supports innovative uses of technology to provide more accessible and affordable high-quality educational opportunities. Hal Plotkin is a senior scholar at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, and a former senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama.
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