February 17, 2018

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

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

The textbook crisis on campus may open be opening up new opportunities, says Steven Bell

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

Ask faculty what the number one complaint they hear from students is these days—besides the perennial “too much course work”—and they will give you a one word response: textbooks. One  faculty member recently revolted against outlandish prices, abandoning two traditional favorites in favor of lesser-priced alternatives.

At my institution we have a Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable to explore how we can best use information and instructional technology to improve the quality of our students’ learning experience. This year we are examining textbook pricing and new options for distributing educational materials. The plan is to open a dialogue about how, as an institution, we can create solutions that lower the cost of textbooks for our students.

Recently, I’ve had some new realizations about the textbook crisis, and how our institutions could adopt strategies to offer a range of options for delivering curricular materials. In next week’s column I’ll discuss those strategies in more detail. This week, I’ll offer some background on the textbook crisis, and  why it may be advantageous to link this issue to the open access debate.

The Open Textbook Movement
In case you were too busy building your library’s collection to notice, education institutions at every level are experiencing a textbook crisis. Stratospheric pricing models and questionable industry practices, such as frequent new editions, have made the cost of textbooks a rapidly increasing percentage of the overall cost of higher education. Students are engaged in a battle to lower textbook costs and are using every option from sharing books with classmates to online pirating to outright refusing to buy them.

I was certainly no stranger to the textbook crisis having included many stories about this issue at Kept-Up Academic Librarian. But I knew little about the open textbook movement and other emerging options until I attended a SPARC program about textbooks at ALA Midwinter in January 2009.

Students, faculty and bookstores come together
The program was titled “The Transformative Potential of Open Educational Resources (OER).” Open educational resources is a much broader concept than open textbooks, as it includes all types of educational opportunities that are freely available to the public, such as OpenCourseWare from MIT. When authors publish their textbooks on open software platforms they add to the growing universe of OER content. The SPARC site offers more details on the program and speakers, along with videos of their presentations.

I was impressed by the diversity of the four speakers, representing students, faculty, and bookstore managers. Though they presented different possibilities for that future of textbooks, all were in agreement that the current model was hopelessly overpriced and broken.

Backdoor to open access
Getting faculty to support open access is a significant challenge, but there may be another strategy yet to to try. Some academic libraries have achieved great success, as demonstrated by a number of faculty senates passing resolutions in support of open access initiatives. Others, like my own, struggle to generate faculty interest in such resolutions. I considered the possibility that our institution might make more progress if we could add the textbook crisis to the conversation, and involve a broader range of individuals to discuss the issues and possible solutions. Creating greater interest in open access textbooks could naturally lead to more awareness of and interest in open access journal publishing.

It’s taken the better part of a year, but on my campus we are now in the early stages of exploring open educational textbooks. And while it’s too early to tell, I suspect that getting students involved may make a difference because of their personal stake in a more open (and less costly) outcome.

Emerging options for open textbooks
The SPARC program alerted me to several initiatives underway to create publishing platforms for open textbooks. Flatworld Knowledge Press and Connexions allow faculty to freely share entire books, chapters or other educational materials for which they hold copyright. For example, several accounting professors at individual institutions could collaboratively make available a chapter or two and then use these services to offer them to students as a text. Another faculty member can use and even customize that same book, adding their own content, reordering sections, or deleting other portions. Students typically have options to use the content online for free, or choose a low-cost print copy or a CD.

At the program I was most surprised and pleased by the presentation from the representative of the National Association of College Stores. College bookstores have a huge stake in the changing textbook environment, since this is a profit center for the university and the primary source of revenue by which the store operates. But bookstore managers also realize the times are a changing and so must they. Their strategy seeks to balance multiple options that could bring cost savings to students. So any campus strategy to introduce OER must involve faculty, students and the bookstore.

Traditional publishers are changing, too
Of course, traditional publishers are hardly twiddling their thumbs while the electronic revolution unfolds. Why would faculty even consider costly textbooks when the prospect of saving students money is on the horizon? For one thing, commercial publishers make their wares quite tempting by adding in ready-made slide presentations, prepared quizzes, and cartridges for courseware systems that populate course sites with loads of content.

All of this makes it much easier for faculty to produce course materials, whereas open educational resources require more time and start-up work. I am excited about the prospects for OER, but already dread the reaction from faculty when they are asked to drop time-saving commercial publisher e-textbooks for more labor intensive open textbooks.

CRS: a better model?
Achieving positive results will certainly depend on putting together the right team of colleagues to bring forward these new initiatives. The one we established at my institution includes faculty who are already using Flatworld, our bookstore manager, and a representative from student government. Getting our faculty to buy in to the concept of open textbooks will also depend on presenting a workable and sustainable model.

Just as we are seeing multiple open access publishing models evolving for journals, there should be a parallel solution for textbooks that isn’t all of one and none of the other. Perhaps what’s needed is a new approach based on a new model. Call it the Curricular Resource Strategy. In next week’s installment of FTBT I’ll describe CRS in more detail.

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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