May 8, 2009

No holy grail, just inexpensive texts, please

I love the inspiration of the Student PIRG Open Textbook campaign as well as the Hewlett Foundation Open Educational Resources initiative, not to mention the excitement over H.R. 1464 over at iterating towards openness (relevant entries one, two, three, and four). I think I'll take the latter's subtitle as my theme on this topic: "pragmatism over zeal." The blog's motto is about open content. I'm going to apply it to the practical issue when common-course texts are more expensive than community-college course tuition: we need good, inexpensive texts.

Open content may be one way to the goal (good, inexpensive texts), but it is not the holy grail. It's a possible path. There are a number of reasons to avoid putting all one's eggs into the open-content basket: the need for development and updating material, respect for the effort that good text authors expend, and the legitimate need to provide an incentive for good texts as opposed to any texts that don't count as highway robbery. In this, I take my philosophy from John Willinsky's The Access Principle: we'll take improvement as it comes.

What are the different paths towards this goal? Let me imagine a few:

  • Open content writing supported by private or public grants.
  • "Loss-leader" investment in texts by institutions.
  • Open content writing supported by communities of users.
  • Self-published textbooks using print-on-demand technology.
  • Some combination of the above.

Some explanation is in order on each of these. Currently, Hewlett is banking on the first: if the foundation can support the writing of text material for some of the most common college courses, it will save thousands of college students. That's pretty good leverage where appropriate. But that's not the only path, and it's important not to rely on that for a few reasons.

One reason to be cautious is because an institution can and should be free to innovate, and sometimes that innovation requires a different approach to material. Or faculty in a department may decide that a grant-supported open text in accounting or college algebra is just junk. So what else to do? In many public universities and colleges, the cost of a textbook for a single large-enrollment class is often greater than even a noticeable tuition hike. (Think calculus texts at $200+.) If a community college or university subsidizes textbook writing for a handful of large-enrollment classes, it can simultaneously save students hundreds of dollars, make a substantial point in public about how it serves the public, and protect its political legitimacy.

A variant of the grant-supported development of open content is the community support of open content text materials. This is a lot harder to organize (even along an open-source software model), but especially in technical fields, this may well be developing even as I write. But it does require some organization.

But what about the many college classes that have a niche but not enough enrollment to attract the attention of a Hewlett Foundation, the federal government (if the bill on open-content support goes anywhere), or an institutional investment? And where there isn't a community of faculty nationwide or worldwide to write and rewrite texts? In essence, grant-funded and community-supported open-content textbooks are going to be most feasible for the largest-enrollment classes. For many other classes, I suspect that faculty could develop texts inside the classes they teach, make electronic versions of the texts available for free inside the institution (to avoid conflict-of-interest problems), and then self-publish the material through a print-on-demand outfit either for their own students who want hard copy (and because that is optional, the conflict of interest is mooted) or for other institutions. Or publish through the Kindle mechanism at Amazon. For a variety of reasons, this allows faculty authors to bet and win on the long tail in niche courses. And for students, the cost of a text can be minimal while still providing net income to authors comparable to royalties through standard text publishing.

There are variations on the theme, but I hope that the obsession with open content for its own sake is replaced with the end goal: cheaper texts for students. I suspect students don't care whether the $25 text they might have access to is published through, is available on their Kindle, or is published through LightningSource and bought online. I suspect that if the text works for them, they'd be happy to pay $25 rather than $200.

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Tags: textbooks
Posted in Education policy on May 8, 2009 6:45 PM |