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Battle over college course material is a textbook example of technological change

Brandan Hudgins, an engineering student at Virginia’s Tide­water Community College, has used traditional textbooks and electronic books. He has paid for digital codes to get homework assignments and, sometimes, gotten free, unlimited access to texts.

This is the mix-and-match world of course materials that confronts today’s college students. Hudgins has paid as much as $625 a semester and as little as $200.

A revolution in college course materials is raising questions about cost, access and fairness. Publishers say their high-tech courseware — electronic books glowing with videos and interactive study guides — can improve the quality of learning at a small fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks. But student advocates call for adoption of open-source textbooks that can be downloaded for free, and worry that the same companies that drove up the price of print textbooks are dominating the digital space and will ultimately introduce higher costs there.

College courses without textbooks? These schools are giving it a shot.

Now, Congress has stepped into the fray by committing $5 million in the fiscal 2018 budget to support the creation or expansion of open textbooks on college campuses. The money is the first major investment by the federal government in open-source materials and could advance the movement.

The tension between publishers and advocates is rooted in what is widely viewed as a broken model of textbook pricing. The cost of print textbooks soared 65 percent in the past decade, although prices are beginning to moderate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Academic publishers have maximized profits from college textbooks by setting high prices to recoup their investment and to offset limited sales.

Textbooks don’t exactly fly off shelves, and after an initial sale they can be resold several times without publishers seeing a dime. Publishers often release new versions at a higher price than the prior edition, creating a cycle that works to the detriment of cost-conscious students.

“Costs have gotten as bad as they can get, so any step you take [seems to] lead in a better direction,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. “The question is: How quickly will that path end up right back where we started?”

Allen envisions a marketplace with options that leverage digital providers to reduce costs and expand access, instead of further locking down the market. Her organization advocates for open-educational resources: peer-reviewed academic material released under an intellectual property license that permits free use.

That includes many of the same sorts of digital textbooks, streaming videos, tests and software that are produced by big-name publishers — some of whom also dabble in the space. Students can download the material free or print copies for as much as $40, Allen said.

The model is an alternative to the online platforms that publishers have created requiring students to purchase a digital code for access to homework, study guides and exams. Access codes cost $100 on average and are good for one semester, preventing students from reselling them and retrieving the material in other semesters.

Nicole Finkbeiner of OpenStax, an open-source publisher at Rice University in Houston, said open texts resolve the problem of students being unable to hold onto digital courseware for multiple semesters.

“Students not only have immediate access to the content but unlimited access,” she said. “That means they can continue to use and refer to that content throughout their studies.”

Hudgins from Tidewater has used free courseware in his calculus and chemistry classes. He was impressed by the calculus materials he accessed through Lumen OHM, an online learning management system that supports open-educational resources. Each problem set, he said, had a video explaining the steps to a solution.

Lujain Al-Khawi, a 20-year-old junior at George Washington University, said she was thrilled to find open-access versions of textbooks needed for some of her biomedical engineering classes. But she has had difficulty navigating some of the resources. Still, it’s worth it, she said, considering how much money she is saving. Al-Khawi said she spent at least $500 a semester on books in her freshman and sophomore years. This year, she has spent nothing.

How college students can save money on pricey textbooks

Publishing and education tech companies say there is room in the market for all manner of digital products and no need to promote one form to the exclusion of others. They say that the materials accessed through their online platforms can improve learning and offer professors in-depth assessment of students at a small fraction of the cost of a new textbook.

“There are great open-educational resources, but we don’t want to sacrifice quality for affordability,” said Mike Hale, vice president of education for North America at VitalSource, a digital education company. “We just want people to make a decision that includes both cost and quality.”

Hale said one of the most promising markets from a cost and quality perspective is inclusive-access programs — a new business model that is changing the way digital course materials are paid for and delivered.

Inclusive access means students can receive all course materials — digitally or printed on demand — at a discounted rate on the first day of class. Instead of shopping around for textbooks and paying out of pocket, students who opt into the program have the expense included in their tuition and fees after enrolling in a class.

Students can opt out of these programs, but because so few students choose to do that, publishers say they have found a robust stream of revenue. And as their customer volume increases, publishers say they can offer steeper discounts.

Nik Osborne, senior vice president of higher-ed strategy at Pearson Education, said that while the publishing company might charge $80 for access to its digital MyLab Math platform, the discounted inclusive-access model can lower the price to about $50.

At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Carol Miller-Schaefer, director of the campus store VolShop, said inclusive-access courses had saved students about $2 million in the fall semester alone. Two percent of students opted out of the program this semester, she said.

VitalSource is providing inclusive-access programs at 250 schools and will be delivering its model through the widely used learning management system Blackboard this spring. Textbook costs have declined from up to $1,300 a year to less than $600 at the schools where VitalSource has implemented its inclusive-access program, Hale said.

Pearson has inked inclusive-access agreements with about 400 colleges and universities, while the publisher McGraw-Hill Education works with more than 270 institutions across the country.

“We the industry created a problem where we have overpriced things . . . and the market is working to correct that,” said Scott Virkler, chief product officer at McGraw-Hill Education. “Affordability, choice, value and learning outcomes are the things that we are focused on in our offerings, and we can’t do one at the expense of the other. We have to find a balance.”

But some experts remain leery of the inclusive-access model.

“It’s exactly the same model where publishers are in control and students are a captive market, but the difference now is publishers have direct access to students’ wallets. What could go wrong with that?” said Allen, of the Academic Resources Coalition.

Kayla Little, 20, a communications major on the pre-med track at the University of Maryland at College Park, said more than half of her classes require access codes that cost as much as $180. The most frustrating part, she said, is when professors require code-protected material with no real bearing on the course. She recalls purchasing a $100 access code for a calculus class in which assignments behind the paywall counted for 10 percent of her final grade.

What worries student advocates is the proliferation of access codes. According to the National Association of College Stores, about 60 percent of students at community colleges and four-year institutions used an access code during the 2016-2017 academic year, mainly in introductory courses.

“Traditional publishers are taking advantage of students because they must buy what materials are assigned, so the rules of supply and demand really don’t apply here,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, a higher-education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer protection organization.

Vitez said textbook bundles undermine some of the strategies students employ to save money on course materials, such as sharing, buying used books or renting textbooks. That ingenuity has reduced spending on course materials over the years and placed further pressure on print textbook sales.

It is up to instructors to decide what course materials to use. Many are concerned about affordability but not to the exclusion of quality or academic freedom. Others say their teaching load leaves little time to find the least expensive options, or say they feel pressured to focus on publishing research that is far more valuable in the tenure process than adopting teaching innovations.

“If a university is interested in taking advantage of these resources, they should incentivize professors through faculty development or by giving them credit in their evaluations for using innovative resources,” said Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo.

Faculty members are warming to open-source courseware, with a recent study by the Babson Survey Research Group, part of Babson College, reporting that the share of instructors using such material grew from 5 percent in the 2015-2016 academic year to 9 percent the next year.

Colorado and Georgia provide grants to support the adoption of open-educational resources at their public colleges and universities. But the decision should remain in the hands of professors, said Jesse Stommel, executive director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

“I push back on the notion that every class has to use digital material of any kind. Each class is different, each school is different,” he said. “Every institution should have a goal to educate faculty and students about what is available and be there to support them as they make the choices.”

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