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I’m hoping some wise and worldly readers have found, figured out or devised an elegant solution to this one.

How do you keep the textbook cost of a math class at zero without sacrificing an online homework platform?

Back in the day, commercial publishers would bundle online homework (and quiz) systems with textbooks. The idea was both to encourage adoption of their book as opposed to others, and to short-circuit the used book market. It largely worked, because it solved several problems. It allowed faculty to assign substantial homework without giving up their lives to grading; it allowed students instant feedback even if they couldn’t form or get to study groups; sometimes it even allowed faculty to see quickly where students were having the most trouble, so they’d know what to focus on in subsequent class meetings. The major issue was cost.

With the advent of OER -- especially in fields like math, where the content is far from proprietary -- many colleges (including my own) have been able to get a handle on textbook costs. But the loss of online homework systems presents a challenge.

Some publishers have decided to reach a sort of détente with OER, offering homework systems that pair with existing OER textbooks. The idea there is that you can pair, say, a book from OpenStax with a platform from Pearson. That way, students still save money on the book, Pearson still makes money and the advantages of online homework systems remain.

As a transitional measure, that makes some sense to me. But over the long term, commercial publishers’ track record with instructional materials suggests that we can expect costs of stand-alone packages to rise as they become more popular. It’s a variation on what happened with “cord cutting” and cable TV. Yes, you can choose your streaming services now, but if you aren’t careful, it’s easy to find yourself paying pretty much what you paid before.

Over the long term, I suspect that open homework systems are the way to go. But the prospect of developing such a thing is daunting. They may be relatively simple to use, but they’re a lot of skilled work to produce. It’s not the sort of thing that a professor or two can bang out with some course releases.

Having said that, I’m also confident that mine is not the first college to face this issue. Hence the question.

For colleges that have committed to the zero-cost option, how do you handle online homework systems? Have any state systems or consortia developed one? Is the Gates Foundation looking for its next project?

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