November 24, 2017

Not Textbooks. Think Curricular Resource Strategy, Part II | From the Bell Tower

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

The library could be at the center of the answer to the textbook crisis on campus, says Steven Bell

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

In last week’s column I introduced some ideas about open educational textbooks as an alternative to more costly traditional textbooks. The gist of the column was that students are hard pressed to afford assigned textbooks as the total cost of those books becomes an increasingly higher percentage of the overall cost of a college education. The good news is that in response to concerns from students, faculty, and bookstore managers about the unsustainable future of costly print textbooks, free and low cost alternatives are being developed.

The most promising among them is the open access textbook. The problem, as a colleague pointed out to me, is that there are going to be areas of the curriculum where a traditional print book may be the best learning material, such as an introductory text on art history. So for the near future, until digital formats can handle any content easily and meet the learning needs of students, any solutions we develop need to account for a wide range of curricular needs and learning styles.

It’s the wild west out there
This fall my university held a day of programs that featured an invited speaker and consultant named Mark Milliron. The TLTR (Teaching, Learning & Technology Roundtable) that I mentioned in last week’s column met with Milliron to discuss the current and future impact of learning technology on higher education. Milliron did not disappoint. He was adept at answering nearly any question we threw at him, showing a deep understanding of education and technology.

I asked Milliron to offer his take on the current and developing textbook situation, which I described in my question as something akin to “the wild west.” He responded that there was no question that the textbook market was in tremendous flux, with the publishers having no clear sense of what model would deliver everything that faculty and students would want at an affordable price. Acknowledging that firms such as Flatworld and Connexions created further market disruption, he agreed that “wild west” did indeed describe that state of the market. But he gave an interesting piece of advice.

CRS – curricular resource strategy
Milliron advised that our institution, in developing a strategy for textbooks, should think more broadly about future learning resources. He suggested we contemplate something he called curricular resource strategy (CRS), a term I’d not heard before.

Think of it like this: across the curriculum at any higher education institution, a wide range of educational materials and resources are being used for learning. This includes traditional content such as textbooks and journal articles. It also includes components such as individual book chapters, primary source materials, media clips, art images, musical scores, web sites, and more. Any and all of these can be adopted for student learning.

My thinking is that CRS can be likened to a spectrum across which this multitude of curricular resources is spread. On one end of the spectrum we would find traditional print textbooks. At the other end would be open access digital textbooks. All the other media by which educational content is delivered would fall between the two opposite ends. With a CRS system, faculty would pick and choose those curricular resources that best meet the needs of their course and students. For example, freely available open access book chapters could be supplemented with links to scholarly articles in library databases and a multimedia presentation purchased from a digital publisher.

In a CRS there really is no limit to what can be considered learning material, nor how the institution can acquire it. The important point is that wherever the future of textbooks is headed, academic institutions will have multiple options for delivering the education content that best fits the learners and their instructors. The future need not be a one-dimensional choice between commercial or open access textbooks.

Build, buy, share (BBS)
An institutional CRS might result in a repository of learning objects. Into this repository the institution would deposit all types of educational materials, and from it faculty would choose items to assign to their classes. Like a content management system, all learning objects need to exist in just one centrally located place but can be shared by many.

How would the institution acquire the content? Milliron told us the build, buy, share (BBS) model was already on its way to becoming an effective strategy for colleges and universities. They could build some materials in house; sort of like the digital art galleries that use the MDID software. Other materials would be purchased, such as library content or publisher material. And yet other materials could be shared across departments or even institutions, such as learning objects in web-based repositories, of the types found in Merlot or the Open Educational Resources Commons.

Library as model and leader
How will CRS take hold on campuses? The good news is that academic libraries are already moving in this direction because they leverage BBS in other ways. Using open source software libraries build new applications for the discovery and management of information. Libraries continue to buy vast quantities of content. Through regional, state, and national organizations libraries share content and expertise.

We can also serve as a campus leader in applying the BBS model to develop curricular resources. In fact, isn’t that what an academic library is—a curricular resource? It already has books, DVDs, photographs, rare books, and much more, but organizes this multitude of learning content so that any of the parts can be used as needed. That, in essence, is the idea behind a CRS. It’s all about creating a system that allows faculty to easily choose and compile the right set of learning resources, and lets students use them free from worry of a future clouded by permanent indebtedness.

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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