Advocates for open educational resources, or OER, have had mixed success in getting the federal government to invest public money in open course materials. Money that would have gone to creating open materials for community colleges ended up getting axed  from the 2009 American Graduation Initiative. While the Labor Department program that took its place could provide as much as $2 billion over several years, federal lawmakers have proposed to eliminate grants to develop OER  if commercial publishers already offer -- or have “under development” -- similar materials.
But while OER advocates have gotten inconsistent backing in Washington, D.C., they were able to claim a small but potentially significant victory on Monday in Washington State. The community and technical college system there celebrated the first major landmark in a state-funded push for open courses that it expects will save students hundreds per year in textbook costs, and that OER proponents hope could provide an example of how public investment in open materials is not charitable, but strategic.
In a conference call with reporters, the system and its allies announced the opening of the first phase  of its Open Course Library, a repository of course modules that anyone can download, customize and use for free. The first phase involves the publishing and open licensing of 42 introductory courses (of an expected 81), none of which compels students to purchase more than $30 of additional course content.
More than half of the first 42 course modules use only open content, which students can access for free. Other courses refer students to textbooks published by Flat World Knowledge, which offers a choice of free digital textbooks or inexpensive print editions, and Cengage Learning, which agreed to offer certain content for less than the $30 ceiling.
Based on preliminary surveys of instructors and students in pilot courses, the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges says it believes the Open Course Library will save its students an average of $102 per course on textbooks, based on an analysis by the Student Public Interest Research Groups. (That estimate accounts for students who would have rented or bought used books at a discount.) That amounts to $1.2 million in anticipated savings for 2011-2012 for students in the system’s pilot courses, a figure that exceeds the $1.18 million the state spent to develop the courses. If every instructor in the system adopted modules from the Open Course Library for their introductory courses, the projected savings is $41 million per year -- though system officials said there will be no mandate.
Reforming textbook prices, which are generally estimated at between $600 and $1,000 per year, is sometimes criticized as a red herring in light of climbing tuition. But Tom Caswell, open education policy associate for the Washington community college board, points out that with tuition at Washington’s two-year colleges at around $3,600 per year, textbooks make up a nontrivial proportion of the yearly cost for students.
On Monday’s conference call, Caswell made the case that the system’s OER push did not just save money for students, but in fact might promote greater academic engagement. Because of the high cost of textbooks from commercial publishers, many students try to keep up without the book, he said. Others do buy or rent a copy, but refrain from marking it up for fear of damaging its resale value, Caswell said.
It stands to reason, he said, that encouraging the adoption of low-cost learning materials would increase the likelihood that students will acquire and use textbooks, and will enjoy greater success as a result. “This wasn’t just that we had this extra money and [wondered] what we should do with it,” Caswell told Inside Higher Ed. “This is a strategic investment.”
State Representative Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat and one of the library’s biggest legislative champions, suggested that lowering the cost of textbooks could create savings for the state in its financial aid programs.
The eligibility formula for the state’s need-based student grants accounts for the projected cost of textbooks. So if a preponderance of community and technical college instructors adopt courses from the Open Course Library, such that the projected cost of textbooks goes down, the state might be able to disburse aid to more students, Carlyle said. Last year, the state was able to give aid to only 70,000 of the 92,000 students who qualified for the grants, he said.
There are other ways Washington could have lowered the cost of textbooks without investing $1.18 million in developing the Open Course Library. “The state of Washington could immediately reduce the cost of textbooks by nearly 10 percent for all students in the state by simply exempting them from the 9.5 percent sales tax, as 26 states already do,” said Richard Hershman, vice president of governmental relations for the National Association of College Stores -- adding that the Washington legislature had considered, and rejected, that option several times.
“Assuming the system’s current cost estimates are accurate, the state and counties are likely collecting nearly $5 million a year from students in these 81 courses alone,” Hershman said.
Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, said that creating a sales tax exemption "helps everyone a little bit, rather than using those funds to help the student who need it the most." Providing public support for OER, on the other hand, puts pressure on publishers to lower their prices to match the low-cost alternatives built into the open courses.
There is also the question of whether the sort of materials available for $30 might be of insufficient quality. In anticipation of that criticism, which has made some instructors anxious , the system officials invited Michael Kenyon, a math instructor at Green River Community College, to testify that while “you might have a few quibbles about typos that slip through that might not slip through a publisher’s full-blown review process,” the quality of the open textbook he had selected for his course was up to snuff.
Asked whether it might be even more strategic for the state government to subsidize the provision of more sophisticated learning modules from publishers, which have evolved to walk students through lessons and respond to their individual needs, Caswell said system officials were looking into getting access to similar materials from Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, which focuses on that sort of technology. “We’re in that game as well,” Caswell said.
David Wiley, an associate professor of psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, said that all else being equal, public investment in open educational resources makes economic sense at any level.
“The people in the State of Washington pay taxes that go into federal [and state] financial aid, that then get loaned back to students for purpose of buying textbooks,” he said.
“If the state itself would develop their own books and own those books and make them freely available,” Wiley said, taxpayers would only have to pay for students’ textbooks once, rather than “using state and federal aid to buy those books over and over and over again.… There ought to be federal support for it, state support for it, up and down the entire chain.”
Back in the other Washington, U.S. Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton expressed support for the program. "Cutting student textbook costs by more than half is groundbreaking," Hamilton said. "Lowering college costs increases a student's ability to take more courses, finish their degree on time, and enter the workforce prepared for success in a global economy. That's not just good for them, its good for the country."
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