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Nov 16 2015

16 Nov 2015

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Putting a Price on Learning

Piggy bank and coinsSometimes the axiom, “you get what you pay for” holds true. Other times, the connection between cost and value isn’t so obvious. I often think that Warren Buffet nailed it when he said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” It’s hard to argue with that logic. Certainly for those of us at community colleges, I think it’s fair to say that we pride ourselves in the value of the education students receive, especially considering the cost when compared to other colleges and universities. Our tuition and fees are a bargain, but what about the cost of textbooks for our students? Of course textbook costs vary from course to course, but generally textbooks are no cheaper at a two-year college than they are at a four-year university. Did you know that on average textbook prices have surpassed the rate of inflation threefold since 1977? Are there other options that provide equal or greater value to students at lower prices than traditional textbooks?

As you may have gathered by now, I’m alluding to open educational resources -- often simply referred to as OERs. Technically, open educational resources are educationally valuable materials located on the Internet that are available for anyone (instructors, students, self-learners, etc.) to use at no cost. I’m guessing that a good percentage of instructors are already taking advantage of OERs. One of the most common OER resources that I see being used in classes are TED Talks. These presentations are made available for everyone to use through a Creative Commons (CC) license. Creative Commons licenses come in a variety of flavors, but all of them allow educational use of copyrighted works. If you want to find out more about Creative Commons stop by their Website (https://creativecommons.org/).

Of course TED Talks aren’t the only OER resource available, and videotaped talks aren’t the only type of OER resource. You can find a variety of resources ranging from lecture notes, to lab simulations, to complete courses, and textbooks. Yes, you can find complete textbooks that you and your students can get for free, and have access to on the very first day of class. For many of our students, acquiring textbooks in a timely manner can be problematic. This may be due either to delays in receiving financial aid funds, or for those who don’t qualify for financial aid textbooks may take a back seat to other necessities. A free textbook would solve this vexing problem.

Benefits Besides Cost Savings

Aside from the obvious benefit to student pocketbooks and access, there have been a number of recent studies that seem to indicate other benefits to students when open textbooks are adopted. Some studies show that student success rates improve, possibly as a result of having the textbook available at the very start of the semester. Retention rates are also higher in classes where open textbooks are used. In other studies, there was a noticeable increase in the number of units that students enrolled in following a semester in which they took a class that used open textbooks. Perhaps students who spent less on textbooks could afford to take more classes the next semester. As for cost savings, one study found an average savings of $138 per course when open textbooks were used, which resulted in more than $1 million dollars in total student savings at that college.

Improved success and retention rates, and lower costs to students—What’s not to like about open textbooks? Why aren’t more instructors making the switch? To begin with, in some disciplines it is difficult to find an open textbook option. This will surely change as open textbooks continue to be developed. In some cases, instructors rely heavily on test banks that come with proprietary textbooks, and these are often not available with open textbooks. Many times, textbook decisions are made by a group of faculty. And as we all know, committees don’t always make speedy decisions. And of course there is still the mindset that a proprietary product is a better product than one that it is given away for free. However, instructors are often surprised to learn that the production process for many of the prominent sources of open textbooks is similar to that of proprietary book. They rely on practicing academics and publishing experts to write, edit, and publish their textbooks. Furthermore, because they are open source and electronically published open textbooks are continually updated.

The Life of Books

All this talk of books makes my mind wander to our current CHAP theme, “The Life of Books: The Written Word Past and Present.” We know the recent history of textbooks. What will the future bring? It’s unlikely that the trend toward more openness in information will fade; At least I hope it won’t. Information is increasingly being moved online which dramatically broadens its scope. And more and more of that information is being shared with a Creative Commons license. Various branches of our government are calling for more openness and sharing of content, including the California State Chancellor’s Office which has made it a requirement that all work that is paid for by the system must carry a Creative Commons “attribution” license. I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of sharing educational content rather than locking it up for a select few. Noticing this increase in the sharing of information has me very optimistic for the future of education.

If you're interested to learn more about OER in general or open textbooks in particular and you don't know where to start come by and see me or give me a call. I have massive store of resources that I can share with you and people that I can get you in touch with who have made the transition to open textbooks. Maybe you'll want to make it a New Year's resolution.


American Council on Education. “Open Textbooks: The Current State of Play,” April 2015 (accessed November 13, 2015). http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Quick-Hits-Open-Textbooks.pdf.

Blake, Eben. “College Textbook Prices have Risen Over 1000% Since 1971.” International Business Times. August 4, 2015 (accessed November 16, 2015). http://www.ibtimes.com/college-textbook-prices-have-risen-over-1000-1971-2037875.

Feldstein, Andrew, et al. "Open Textbooks and Increased Student Access and Outcomes." European Journal of Open, Distance And E-Learning, no. 2, January 1, 2012 (accessed November 12, 2015). http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ992490.

Fisher, Lane, et al. “A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students”. Journal of Computing in Higher Education. December 2015, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 159-172. (accessed November 12, 2015). http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12528-015-9101-x.

Rajiv Jhangiani Blog; “A Faculty Perspective on Open Textbooks,” blog entry by Rajiv Jhangiani, April 23, 2014 (accessed November 13, 2015). http://thatpsychprof.com/a-faculty-perspective-on-open-textbooks/.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition Blog; “Survey Says: Textbook Costs a Threat to Student Success,” blog entry by Nicole Allen, January 28, 2014 (accessed November 12, 2015). http://www.sparc.arl.org/blog/survey-says-textbook-costs-threat-student-success.

Senack, Ethan. “Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution”. The Student PIRGs. February 2015 (accessed November 12, 2015). http://www.studentpirgs.org/reports/sp/open-textbooks-billion-dollar-solution.

UConn Libraries Blog; “Open Textbooks Key to Curbing Costs and Increasing Student Success,” blog entry by Jean Nelson, March 30, 2015 (accessed November 12, 2015). http://lib.uconn.edu/blog/2015/03/30/increasing-student-success-with-open-source-textbooks/.

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