March 22, 2018

Openness to Textbook Alternatives is Growing | From the Bell Tower

Both the higher education and mainstream media tend to report on studies relating college students’ lack of openness to nonprint textbooks. More research and experimentation in this area suggest student attitudes may be starting to change.

The return of the fall semester brought with it the usual barrage of student questions about textbook availability. Student after student marched to the reference desk in search of a textbook. For some, even an outdated edition would do. For many more, unfortunately, the search was futile. Academic libraries, they discovered, make a poor substitute for the campus bookstore. The high cost of commercial textbooks is a perennial source of financial pain for college students. The question is what can we do about it, and by “we” I mean academic librarians. I’ve previously shared some ideas for strategies that might be employed to offer free or no-cost learning material options for students. This might include the use of open educational resources or licensed library content. One argument in support of print textbooks is that students prefer it for reading and study. Student resistance to digital texts is shifting and that could bode well for the acceleration of textbook alternatives.

Still Experimenting

At a growing number of colleges and universities, the advent of the new semester brought new initiatives to combat the cost of traditional textbooks. To achieve savings, there are a variety of experiments including e-textbooks on tablets and open textbooks produced by faculty or alternate publishers. Even Google entered the textbook rental market. The indicators point to a growing discontent with the textbook industry. These various pilot projects received attention in an Inside Higher Ed article that highlighted a few of the more interesting efforts to save students money. The gist is that alternate textbook experiments are getting mixed results. Some depend on costly technologies such as iPads. Others run into barriers when they rely on partnerships with publishers. The perspective of Richard Baraniuk, director of OpenStax College, a publisher of open textbooks, encourages me. He said, “I think there’s going to be a lot of experiments—a lot of them will fail, but some will be successful…. My biggest piece of advice would be to work toward projects and initiatives that focus on student learning as the ultimate outcome.” I agree that higher education needs to shift from how the learning content is delivered to how it can support learning outcomes.

Students Prefer OER

One ongoing barrier to the adoption of alternate—and typically nonprint—learning content is the continuing public perception that students prefer print to digital. While it may overstate the case a bit to say that students now prefer e-learning content, at least one significant research project did find that the tide may be turning away from print and toward the digital. Though it’s just one study, it points to a shift in perception and suggests students are becoming more open to open educational resources (OER)—especially if it means saving money on textbooks. In their article titled “Online and Campus College Students Like Using an Open Educational Resource Instead of a Traditional Textbook,” authors Brian L. Lindshield and Koushik Adhikari shared the results of a study in which they used OER to replace traditional textbooks. They called their creation, composed of various multimedia and PDF open learning resources, the “flexbook.” They concluded that “over multiple semesters, campus and online students both had positive perceptions of the flexbook and primarily used an electronic format of the OER.” The authors acknowledge that more research is needed, but their results suggest that students will take advantage of nonprint textbook options. If student attitudes toward digital learning materials are shifting—and the value of textbook savings makes a difference—then perhaps the time is right to accelerate the introduction of textbook alternatives.

Sustaining, Not Solving, the Problem

Because students look to their academic library for textbooks, the librarians often find themselves in the position of being asked to develop solutions to the textbook conundrum—and sometimes it’s the administration that does the asking. Being put in the driver’s seat on this issue presents both a threat and an opportunity. It depends on our response. I admit to being somewhat dismayed when our library solution to providing textbook relief to students is simply to buy the books and put them on reserve. Yes, it’s an immediate and easy solution, but it’s little more than a Band-Aid approach. It’s certainly a threat to the library budget, because resources that could acquire valuable content or support new library initiatives are instead shifted to textbooks that quickly become outdated. Students still have limited access, many may never bother to use them at all, and when librarians buy textbooks for students, it has the dual impact of supporting a broken textbook publishing model and giving faculty the impression that all is well when it comes to their students and textbook purchasing. When librarians buy textbooks for students and put them on reserve, it sustains the status quo and ultimately tackles none of the serious problems underlying the broken system. When the next semester rolls around, students and administrators will be back, asking librarians to buy more costly textbooks.

Librarians Leading the Way

We can do better. Now that the research is pointing to a change in student perceptions about using nonprint alternatives, academic librarians can leverage this and other experimentation to try to change the textbook culture on their campuses. Perhaps the first step is to get faculty to change the conversations from textbooks to alternate/digital learning materials. Some already are thinking differently, but we need more converts. Let’s stop talking about textbooks altogether and change our terminology to “digital learning materials.” We are playing a role in supporting digital humanities. We offer plenty of digital content. Now may be the time to advance the push for digital learning content and move beyond the world of print textbooks. This fall I was particularly encouraged to learn that Nicole Allen joined SPARC as a new director of OER. As a longtime advocate of textbook alternatives, I believe that Allen will help SPARC provide academic librarians with the support needed to bring the type of change we’ve created in the world of scholarly publishing to the textbook marketplace. But Allen needs our help. We can be her partners. A good place to start might be rethinking our use of the library reserve room as a distribution center for textbooks. It’s up to us to create the change.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. “SUNY’s First Open Access Textbooks Now Available – For Free”