OER Disrupting Textbook Marketplace

Denise Wydra says New York state’s pursuit of free and inexpensive course materials is changing the traditional textbook landscape in fundamental ways.

August 16, 2017

The state of New York made big news in the education space earlier this year when it announced plans to offer tuition-free college to qualifying families. Part of that plan includes $8 million that will be used "to help defray the prohibitive cost of textbooks."

Both of these moves could have far-reaching consequences, but one of them is far more radical than the other. Here’s why.

The tuition grants are called Excelsior Scholarships. Students who receive them will be going to the same schools as students who don’t, will take the same classes and will have the same instructors. The only difference is that they won’t pay the same tuition.

But how is that possible? Will instructors give up their pay for courses with high proportions of Excelsior students? Will instructors be replaced with volunteers (maybe retired business executives) or have their work outsourced to cheaper sources of labor overseas? Or even robots?

No, the simple answer is that the instructors will get paid, the lights will stay on and the cafeteria will continue to function. The only difference is that the cost will be borne by the state -- that is, by New York state citizens via their tax dollars. Same providers and offerings as before, but the state and taxpayers are picking up the bill.

So what about the other part, the textbooks? Here’s where the radical innovation is found.

If New York were to save students money on textbooks the same way it is saving students money on tuition, then students would have the same textbook providers and offerings as before, but the state would be picking up the bill. This isn’t what’s planned, though. Instead, the traditional providers -- textbook publishers -- are being bypassed altogether. The $8 million, which will be split between the State University of New York and City University of New York systems, will go to continued efforts to use completely different learning materials from a completely different source: open educational resources.

The big excitement hovering around OER is usually because they can be far less expensive than traditional publisher-supplied materials -- or even free. In most cases, they can also be adapted more easily than traditionally copyrighted materials, but it’s the “less-expensive” part that is so alluring to the state of New York. The hope is that by using OER, the cost of not only tuition but also course materials can be greatly reduced -- and not just for Excelsior students, but for every student.

Most likely change won’t happen for all courses, all at once. Early efforts will probably be focused on the big introductory courses where inexpensive textbooks could lighten the burden for the largest number of students.

Still, the approach is deeply disruptive in multiple ways:

1. The work of creating course materials will increasingly be done differently. Fully formed, high-quality textbooks don’t just pop into existence, a natural by-product of the web. They take work to write, to illustrate, to fact-check, to design, to assemble, to review, to update and so on.

This was once the work of textbook publishers, who, along with their authors, performed these tasks pretty much from soup to nuts. The same work exists, but now it’s being broken up and redistributed to a variety of parties who can, collectively, do it more cheaply. Rather than a renowned biologist explaining mitosis and earning a royalty, a freelance writer with a background in biology can write the passage. Rather than an editor within a publishing house assembling materials into a chapter, educators themselves might take on this work.

In the state system, SUNY OER Services provides training and support for faculty members because, in the words of Katherine Pitcher, SUNY Geneseo’s interim library director, "faculty have to be involved -- it has to be coming from them." That’s a new burden for college instructors, but also a chance for creative input and control.

2. There is a "new breed of organization," in the words of David Wiley at Lumen Learning -- publishers aren’t the only ones in the game. Wiley, Lumen’s chief academic officer, argues that traditional publishers will be unable to shift their business models sufficiently to accommodate OER as a central offering, which opens up space for companies that are “only too happy to … provide all the services necessary to make OER a viable alternative to commercial offerings.” Lumen is itself a successful exemplar of this new breed, a group that is being given a boost by New York’s move.

3. Bypassing publishers means all-new course materials. That’s a huge opportunity to sidestep whatever strictures have evolved over the past decades and introduce new content that aligns more closely with the goals of today’s instructors, students and educational organizations.

For example, Thomas Carey has argued that the creation of OER textbooks can be used to “make visible the way faculty work with knowledge in [their] teaching,” which will in turn help educate students about knowledge making -- a valuable skill in today’s economy.

The state of New York is taking bold steps to make high-quality higher education more accessible to more people than ever before. Reduced tuition is nice, but the state’s pursuit of inexpensive textbooks is disrupting the familiar landscape in fundamental ways.


Denise Wydra, the principal of Branch Ideas Consulting, works with ed-tech companies on strategy and implementation. She previously worked at Bedford/St. Martin’s, Macmillan Learning and Cognii.


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