[Athen] Opinion piece in EdSource today

Deborah Armstrong armstrongdeborah at fhda.edu
Tue Oct 27 09:40:35 PDT 2020

Transform higher education - make textbooks free

The text of the op-ed is below.

What's happening though is publishers reps are fighting this trend with arguments that are actually true. Three of our instructors told me they decided against an OER textbook because of these arguments from their local rep:

* The OER book wasn't accessible and the publisher's book is.

* The OER book didn't come with a lab full of exercises to help students master the material.

* The OER book wasn't regularly updated with the latest pedagogical thinking and research.

Unfortunately, these arguments often have weight. And because accessibility varies depending on the student's disability grasp of AT and their level of patience with learning new skills, you can find a textbook that works fine for one disabled student and a disaster for another. This makes an instructor and a publisher's rep unqualified to decide whether an e-book is accessible simply based on the marketing information from its publisher.

It is true many OER textbooks I've run across have fewer exercises, don't include labs and are often inaccessible in their present form. Writing them is often unpaid labor, so it's certainly likely they will not be as rigorous.

I think though for beginning sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, and meteorology the latest research is likely not necessary. For humanities, it seems to me that until the student is advanced, an OER textbook is probably as good. Once the student assumes higher levels of specialized learning, an OER textbook's flaws might become more apparent.

And the lack of built-in labs that let the student correct their own work and learn from mistakes does make a difference; an OER textbook certainly makes the teacher work harder. As a student who has used these labs both in computer science and in language learning, I find them extremely valuable, so I think in many cases, the publisher is correct.

I think what's needed now is for the big three (Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill ) to be pressured to provide dedicated accessibility support, the way Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the cellphone carriers do. They also need a website dedicated to reporting accessibility issues with their materials. This way the end user has a quick path toward both reporting an issue and getting it resolved. Until then, I'm telling any instructor who asks me to disregard the publishers' claims their materials are accessible. Many are, and that's part of the problem, because when you do run in to something that isn't, you have no easy way to get the publisher to listen, assist or resolve the issue.

I've had experiences with all three publishers. With Pearson, Beautifully accessible textbooks and lab exercises that weren't. With Cengage, accessible lab assignments which depended on pictures in an inaccessible textbook. With McGrawHill, a semi-accessible book and lab with lapses: exercises requiring drag and drop or videos that have no text-based charts or occasionally lack captions.

I've had these experiences as both a DSS professional and a disabled student myself and each time I email support, I get some drone who has no clue even what accessibility is, much less how to resolve or even report problems effectively.
If these publishers were truly commited to accessibility as their websites claim, they'd have testers ready to go when a problem is reported and a dedicated support person who took support calls or answered support emails.

The automatic billing model mentioned below also makes it difficult to get a receipt to send to a publisher when requesting an alternate format. At least with an OER textbook, getting a copy to convert isn't an issue!

*** Text of Op-Ed:
Would you pay for a textbook when you could get a better one for free?
The answer coming from many college administrators might surprise you. By embracing a new "
embedded in tuition
" textbook-pricing scheme and ignoring the benefits of getting textbooks through a freely accessible digital library, many college administrators are burdening
students with unnecessary costs while also sacrificing an opportunity for tech-enabled collaborative innovations.
But there is a much less expensive alternative.
Open educational resources
are teaching and learning resources that reside in the public domain or are released with an intellectual property license that allows their free use
and, often, re-purposing as well as continuous improvement with thousands of educators around the globe contributing to their content.
Carefully controlled studies
Show that such free resources, which includes textbooks, courses and even entire degree-granting programs, clearly and reliably generate results equal to or
better than traditional textbooks at far lower costs.
These resources are freely available for unlimited use online and can also be printed out, as needed, for just the cost of paper and ink.
In a world brimming with knowledge and ideas, just three companies - Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill - control roughly 80% of the college textbook market.
Students pay, on average, more than $1,200 per year for textbooks, according to the College Board, and often far more in some Science Technology Engineering
and Math (STEM) programs.
Textbook costs rose roughly three times the overall rate of inflation for decades until market pressures generated by the open educational resources movement
recently helped reverse that trend. The loss of pricing power sent textbook publishers scrambling for a new way to protect their profits, which led to
a pricing model now gaining traction.
The new scheme bundles the cost of textbooks into tuition. Proponents say this allows colleges to negotiate lower prices and enables students to pay for
textbooks using financial aid.
But, by predetermining faculty options, it threatens to gradually turn college instructors into little more than cogs in publisher-owned content, delivery
and assessment systems, making them more like the clerks who help shoppers use self-service checkout lines.
The automatic textbook billing model hides charges for textbooks and related materials in a student's tuition and fees and also locks institutions into
quotas for volume pricing rather than treating these expenses as separate items students can purchase wherever they can find the best price or, in the
case of open educational resources, no price at all.
Lost in the mix: the opportunity these resources present to create and use shared, technology-based, cost-efficient, continuously improving open learning
materials that are more likely to foster pedagogical breakthroughs, such as science experiments with millions of participating students. Also being lost:
the ability of colleges to control, or often even calculate, the total cost of instruction.
College students now spend more than
$3 billion
of their financial aid on course materials. Those expenditures divert scarce funds that hard-pressed students who qualify for financial assistance could
otherwise use to pay their rent, transportation costs, medical bills and other costs of attendance, all of which force them to take on debts that often
plague them for decades.
A recent study from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, reviewed textbook embedded pricing contracts for textbooks embedded into tuition at 31 colleges affecting more than 700,000 undergraduate students.
Researchers concluded that the agreements:
1. Fail to deliver any real savings for students,
2. Reduce faculty and student choice, and
3. "Give even more power to a handful of big publishing companies."
Open educational resources, by contrast, are available for free use and augmentation in perpetuity, which enables improvements and customization by instructors.
The results are better, more up-to-date learning materials, more engaged instructors and lower costs to students.
The California Legislature recently authorized grants to support the creation of open resources-based, faculty-designed
degree programs at community colleges. Twenty-three colleges used the funds to create pathways that enable students to earn degrees without having to
pay for their textbooks or online learning materials, which they can keep.
The early data from these grant-funded programs are promising. Grades achieved in zero-textbook-cost courses are higher than those earned in classes using
textbooks from commercial publishers. Failing grades are 11% less prevalent, while grades of "A" were 7% more frequent.
Pell grant recipients also scored 7.6% higher than their grades in other courses. Among the differences, with free resources, all students access the learning
materials they need on the first day of class. (This rarely happens when students are asked to buy costly textbooks.)
Other factors include reducing the financial burden that forces students to work more hours at a job to afford course materials and the enhanced ability
of faculty to customize materials to meet unique student needs.
In one successful example, nonprofit publisher
based at Rice University, produces free, high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed college textbooks.
With funding from philanthropic foundations and other sources, OpenStax is now used in more than half of U.S. colleges and universities and in more than
100 countries. The OpenStax library contains nearly 40 free open source textbooks for college and Advanced Placement classes.
When partisan political agreement seems a thing of the past, consider that both the Obama and Trump administrations agree on the effectiveness of open
educational resources.
The Obama administration required all educational materials produced for its signature $2 billion-job-training
be produced with open educational resources licenses so that students would be able to "access free educational materials, include complete courses, and
supportive services designed to help them accomplish their educational and job-training goals."
Likewise, the Trump administration's
2017 National Education Technology Plan
also declared that such resources increase equity, keep content relevant, empower teachers and save money.
Now is the time to give all students access to continuously improving open educational resources rather than allow commercial publishers to hide unnecessary
costs in ever-rising tuition bills.
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