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“I paid $250,000 to have someone tell me to read Jane Eyre, and then I didn’t.” - John Mulaney

There’s plenty to chew on in the latest IHE poll about college faculty attitudes about technology, OER, and assessment. (Least surprising finding: skepticism about assessment remains strong.) But at least in the OER section, it strikes me that we need to ask a different question.

The survey asks the following: “Faculty members and institutions should be open to changing textbooks or other materials to save students money, even if the lower-cost options are of lesser quality.”  I honestly don’t know how to answer that in the abstract, given that there’s “lesser” and then there’s “lesser.” But it’s also the wrong question, because it focuses on the book itself.

The book is irrelevant in itself.  What matters is whether students read the book, and, if they do, what they’re able to do with it.  That entails a few issues, which are separate but related. If the student can’t afford the book, then its quality is entirely irrelevant.  If the student buys the book but doesn’t read it, that isn’t much better; reading by osmosis isn’t terribly effective. The ideal situation has the student devouring the book, but in most cases, it’s reasonable to settle for the student making a real effort to read it.

In other words, rather than doing a survey of faculty perceptions of relative quality of materials, I’d like to see a survey of student engagement with the material.  I’d rather have students actually read a pretty good piece than let a brilliant one sit on a shelf undisturbed, whether at home or in the bookstore.

Anecdotally, several faculty here who’ve adopted OER for their classes have reported pleasant surprise at finding that more students actually do the reading.  That tends to result in better class discussions, for obvious reasons, as well as better student performance on tests and papers. They reported that the difference stems mostly from two factors, one obvious and one surprising.  The obvious one was the elimination of cost as a barrier. The surprising one, at least for me, was that having everything in easy electronic form -- without any DRM hampering access, and sufficiently platform-agnostic that it could be read on almost any device -- made it easier for students to sneak a couple of minutes of reading at a time at work.

As a longtime academic, I admit getting a little twitchy at the prospect of students engaging with material in bite-size nuggets.  Ideally, they’d be able to find long, uninterrupted blocs of time in clean, well-lit spaces in which they could really dive into texts.  But that’s usually not the alternative actually at hand. Usually, the alternative to reading in bits and pieces is not reading at all. If those are the options, I prefer the former.  And the faculty who’ve told me about their experiences have backed that up. Students read on their phones -- bless their young eyes -- on breaks, or in slow moments at work. But that’s better than leaving a book at home, or just not buying it.  And the difference shows up in class.

In other words, I’d prefer to get away from looking at the book as an input, and instead look at it as students experience it.  Yes, I prefer paper books with clear type, read in large chunks. When that option exists, I’m all for it. But many students are proving resourceful about engaging with easily accessible, free, electronic sources, and are getting something out of it.

IHE’s survey question stacks the deck a bit, so I’ll respond with an equally slanted counterexample.  Which is better: a great book that most students don’t read, or a pretty good one that most of them do?

In the meantime, of course, we all need to fight for ways to give students more time to focus on classes.  But that’s the work of years, and there are powerful forces aligned against it. But making material accessible on phones while they’re at work?  We can do that now.

Wise and worldly readers, does my admittedly anecdotal example ring true with your experience? I’d be especially interested in finding out if it’s more pronounced in the community college world than elsewhere.

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