Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Cost of College: Open Access Textbooks Cutting the Bookstore Bill by 80%

Alex Wukman / June 20, 2012

The national conversation may have turned away from the cost of college, but for millions of families and students it’s something that is never too far out of mind. Scraping together the money for tuition, room, and board is hard enough. And it always seems that financial aid doesn’t go far enough, especially when it comes to books.


When SPIRG first started working on textbook affordability the organization was primarily focused on ensuring that college and university campuses had programs in place—textbook rental or textbook reserve—designed to ameliorate the cost of textbooks. However, since 2007 Allen and her team have been working on raising awareness about open access textbooks.

Open access textbooks, and their sister program open education resources, are alternative publishing models that some advocates believe might be the silver bullet of textbook affordability. While the roots of the Open Access (OA) textbook movement can be traced back to online scholastic journals and peer-reviewed articles that were free of charge and free of most copyright restrictions; the ethos that informs the idea of allowing students legal access to textbooks without having to pay hundreds of dollars goes all the way back to the early days of the web and the open source software movement.


Allen stated that, when SPIRG launched an effort in 2008 to get faculty members to sign a letter of intent pledging to use an OA textbook in their courses if, and when, one was available the organization “received 3,000 signatures from professors all across the country.” She went on to say that SPIRG’s research found that the adoption of an OA textbook by a professor could save students up to 80% of the cost of a traditional textbook.

Moving Beyond the Textbook

OA textbook’s money saving potential is something Monica Metz-Wiseman is intimately familiar with. Metz-Wiseman, Coordinator of Electronic Collections for the University of South Florida (USF) Libraries, works with USF’s Textbook Affordability Project (TAP) and has been working to “get the faculty to eliminate the textbook.”


The integration of the coursework into the CMS allows students and faculty multi-platform access. Metz-Wiseman said that the increasing usage of the CMS by USF faculty has been a boon to the university’s students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college and have to struggle to afford the cost of books every year.


Even though Metz-Wiseman is a university librarian, her efforts at increasing textbook affordability often run into the same issue that Allen and SPIRG’s efforts have faced, professor choice. A 2010 survey of USF faculty found that, while 78% of them were aware that the cost of textbooks was an issue for students, only 35% of the professors surveyed considered cost when selecting a book.


The Economics of Textbooks

The disconnect between the faculty and the students isn’t just metaphorical; it’s an inherent abnormality in the textbook marketplace. In a 2006 presentation to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance—an independent, bipartisan committee appointed by Congress and the Secretary of Education to provide advice and counsel on student financial matters—James V. Koch, professor of Economics and President Emeritus of Old Dominion University, stated that the separation between the people choosing the product, professors, and the people paying for it, the students, contributes to price escalation.


The market share dominance enjoyed by publishers was one of the factors that contributed to the cost of textbooks in the U.S. rising 184% between 1986 and 2004, according to the GAO, or triple the rate of domestic inflation. Comparatively, the cost of the international editions of U.S. produced textbooks remained relatively flat over the same period. [snip]


Start-Ups Try Shaking Things Up

“I think that, eventually, the big publishers will have to change the way they do business. And [open access textbooks] might be one of the tools to do it. It may take the death of one of those publishers, but it will change,” said Thomas Buus Madsen, chief operating officer of London based open access textbook publisher BookBoon.

In the world of open access textbooks BookBoon is a rarity. The company is a commercial for-profit entity in a field dominated by non-profits, and even among the commercial for-profits BookBoon’s business model—free ad supported textbooks—is a novelty.[snip].


Currently BookBoon texts have been adopted by professors at 500 universities and colleges in the U.S. and Canada—including UC Berkeley, Georgetown University, New York University, Columbia University, and Cornell University—and more than 1,500 universities in Northern Europe. However, the main interest in BookBoon’s free-to-download textbooks has come from the developing world.

Buss Madsen explained that more than 50% of the company’s 10 million downloads have come from countries like India and South Africa, which can pose problems when selling ads. [snip]..

Like other OA publishers, Buss Madsen has no illusions that some faculty members and administrators are opposed to the idea of open access.


While BookBoon’s adoption rate is impressive for a company that has only been in business since 2005, it still lags behind industry leader Flat World Knowledge. According to Flat World CEO Jeff Shelstad, the company’s open access textbooks will be used in 3,500 classrooms in 44 countries this fall.

Part of Flat World’s success comes from the fact that they offer a unique approach to the text. The textbooks offered by the company are comparable in quality to a text offered by a traditional publisher, like McGraw-Hill or Houghton-Mifflin. However, professors who adopt Flat World books have the ability to interact with the text in a completely different way.

Since Flat World’s texts come with an open license agreement professors are able to make changes to the text after downloading. “They can add in content that they own the copyright to and can reorder the textbook’s sections,” said Shelstad.


Textbooks and DRM

Like BookBoon, Flat World also offers free texts to students. However, Flat World generates revenue by selling both digital and print books and by offering an access code that allows students to interact with the text. While digital access codes are fairly common across academia, Flat World’s $34.95 price point and lack of digital rights management (DRM) software is not.Flat World’s “all access pass” provides students with an online book reader, the ability to download the book to a third party mobile device–like a Kindle or a NOOK, and a printable PDF version of the book. Even though Flat World doesn’t utilize DRM, Shelstad he understands why companies do.


Buus Madsen stated that BookBoon, which is also DRM free, has not been seriously affected by DRM. [snip]

For John Opper of the Florida Distance Learning Consortium’s (FLDC) Open Access Textbook Project, DRM and the way publishers implement it is a very real concern. The FLDC is using a U.S. Department of Education grant to create clearinghouse of open access textbooks and open education resources for Florida educators ... ..

The DRM can range from limiting the amount of time students have access to the textbook file—typically for about 180 days—to requiring students to access the content through a dedicated, locked-down browser based application, or only allowing students to print out a certain number of pages at a time.


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