November 17, 2017

E-textbook Mania Strikes Higher Ed | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

At my institution I represent the library on our Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable (TLTR). The TLTR brings together representatives from academic and administrative offices to work collaboratively to help guide the institution’s decision-making about technology. TLTRs are often affiliated with the TLT Group, but at many institutions there are similar technology advisory groups that have no connection to a national organization.

TLTRs discuss things like course management systems, personal response systems (aka clickers), and just about any technology that may help faculty enhance the quality and impact of teaching and learning. As the fall semester approaches, I’ve advocated that our TLTR should focus its energy on e-textbooks. To generate more interest among the Roundtable I’ve been trying to share information the past few weeks about new developments in the e-textbook marketplace, but lately it seems almost impossible to keep up. New models and competitors are evolving so rapidly that it’s making my head spin.

Why all the attention on e-textbooks
The textbook dilemma has been brewing for years now. Students, parents, and legislators–and some faculty –are alarmed by the cost of textbooks. I’ve been posting stories about e-textbooks at Kept-Up Academic Librarian for a long time; in the past year the number of stories about them and alternate print textbook models has rapidly escalated. But you don’t need to read the articles to understand the problem. Just go out and talk to your students.

You’ll hear stories about $200 textbooks that get used two or three times a semester. Students and their parents are getting fed up with high textbook prices, and politicians at the state and local levels see textbook publishers as a nice juicy target waiting to be taken down—which would earn them points with their constituents. As publishers face legislation that might force them to reform, it’s no surprise that they are finally introducing models that might save students some money. But the real revolution in textbooks is emanating from another source, one that no doubt worries the commercial publishers.

Open education resources to the rescue
A Fast Company article on “edupunks” is getting attention from academic librarians; for many of them it is an introduction to the open education resources (OER) movement. The article discusses projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare Consortium, University of the People, and others that provide free access to higher education content. Traditional colleges and universities have little to worry about for now, as obtaining an accredited degree through an OER-based program is not yet possible. But one thing the OER has spawned that may benefit students is the free e-textbook movement.

Alternate textbook publishers such as Flatworld Knowledge and Connexions are building platforms where faculty can publish content and offer it for free as an ebook, yet allow students to purchase low cost self-published print or even DVD versions. Yes, there are other models that will ease the pain of textbook prices; rentals and ebook readers are emerging as the major options. But truly open access textbooks offer a model that in the long run best serves faculty and their students.

Academic libraries can lead
Just as they have played a leadership role in the open access journal movement, academic libraries need to emerge as leaders in bringing together faculty, students, and the campus bookstore to discuss and explore e-textbooks and options for lowering the cost of textbooks. In fact, on those campuses where the scholarly journal publishing crisis hasn’t taken hold as an issue, focusing attention on textbooks may be a better way to build the coalition that can eventually tackle both textbook and scholarly journal challenges.

Students are far more interested in the textbook crisis than the journal crisis. At the beginning of this column I mentioned that my TLTR is in the early stages of confronting the textbook crisis. But the students aren’t waiting for us. They recently held a forum at my institution with some textbook publishers and the bookstore manager. Across the profession we academic librarians always seem to be kicking ourselves for missing opportunities that should have seemed obvious at the time. E-textbooks present a new opportunity for academic libraries. Let’s not let it pass while we are looking the other way. We can make a difference here.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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