The American Public University System wants to get more bang for its buck with e-textbooks, so the for-profit college system is enlisting its professors to write and edit digital course materials.
Faculty members are submitting proposals for e-textbooks to be used in about half of the institution’s general education courses by the end of 2012. And university leaders hope the recently launched APUS ePress will produce many more in-house e-textbooks in the future.
The plan has led to grumbling among faculty members, some of whom worry about quality control for the new digital texts and about whether they will be paid enough for the new work. Internally published texts also raise challenging questions about professors’ intellectual property rights.
University officials, however, promise that faculty will be fairly compensated, and that each e-textbook will be vetted for proper copyright protection for its contributors. They also said the editorial process will be thorough, overseen by subject-matter experts and including some form of peer-review.
“We’re certainly not going to compromise the quality of our learning materials,” said Karan Powell, the system’s executive vice president and provost. “We’re doing this in a measured way.”
Professors aren’t the only ones who might be lukewarm to the project -- the university is also going head to head with textbook publishers, aiming to cut back what the institution pays them. But that’s a fight they don’t mind picking.
Fred Stielow, the dean of libraries, oversees APUS ePress. He praised the “outstanding work” by Pearson and other publishers on digital textbooks. But given the disruptiveness of the technology, and the down economy, Stielow said the university needs to get creative about the electronic course materials it uses. Besides, he said, most of the major textbook publishers have such large profit margins that they can afford a little competition.
“They believe they know how we should be teaching,” Stielow said, and it may be time to revisit the university's relationship with publishers.
APUS occupies a relatively comfortable niche among for-profit colleges, and one that’s earned them praise , even from some of the industry’s critics. Part of the reason is the university system’s relatively cheap tuition: three-credit undergraduate courses cost $750, an amount that hasn’t changed in a decade.
Affordability is a draw for its 97,000 students, more than 80 percent of whom are affiliated with the military. (UPDATE: The university reported a new enrollment figure of 105,700 this week, a one-year increase of 36 percent.) So is flexibility, given service members' unpredictable schedules and frequent moves. As a result, all courses offered by the university are fully online.
The university assigns e-textbooks for most undergraduate courses. It also offers an unusual perk to undergraduates by not charging for textbooks, which are included in tuition.
Since the university itself pays for digital texts, it stands to reap substantial savings by producing course materials internally.
Stielow said the university already cajoles publishers for deep discounts. And because it makes all textbook purchases centrally, buying them in much larger volumes than would individual professors, the university has been able to negotiate regular discounts of as much as 35 percent.
The creation of APUS ePress is a continuation of the university’s “innovative response to textbook cost inflation,” according to a company press release . But it’s also part of a larger digital strategy, which includes work on an extensive online library and a push for more electronic course materials.
For instance, Powell said the university is even moving away from the concept of “textbook,” preferring the use of a broad range of online tools for classes. Students will also be able to use print-on-demand technology to create cheap, paper versions of texts the university publishes.
The university currently partners with select publishers to produce custom textbooks with guidance from curriculum designers. But with the announcement earlier this year, it plans to add more open-source digital texts and internally produced, course-specific e-textbooks to the mix. It's too early to predict how much money APUS will save with in-house publishing, but university officials acknowledge that cost reduction was a partial motivator for the project.
Some of the university-created digital texts will be shared beyond APUS, Stielow said, as open-access materials that other institutions can use free of charge. Jumping into the open-access movement could mean more exposure for the university’s professors. It will also help keep down costs. But it won’t win APUS many friends among publishers.
Stielow said the university needs to engage with publishers on a broad range of unresolved questions raised by digital course materials.
“There’s some tension in the air,” he said.
A publishing industry insider, who was not familiar with the university’s e-textbook plans and asked to not be identified, said other for-profit colleges had tried in the past to go in-house with textbook production. Those efforts typically failed, the source said, because of cost and quality problems.
For-profits typically get good deals from publishers, the source said, by asking for custom-designed digital texts and demanding discounts because they buy in bulk. So why mess with what isn’t broken?
“Our mission is providing affordable, accessible education,” Powell said, and the savings from APUS ePress will benefit students. She said the university’s professors are more than capable of producing high-quality e-texts.
“What better people to write the resources and put the materials together than our own faculty?” she asked.
‘Redefining Higher Education’
The university’s deadline for faculty textbook proposals was last week. Powell said the institution would continue to accept submissions for a couple more weeks.
Some professors have said it is unclear what they will be paid for the work. The pay will vary by project, Powell said, but the university has set aside a substantial pot of money for contributing faculty members.
“They’re certainly going to be compensated well,” she said.
Even so, such an arrangement is unusual and potentially troubling, said Kathi Westcott, acting senior counsel for the American Association of University Professors.
“Faculty members for the most part don’t produce work for hire,” Westcott said, and have a “traditional right to their own writing.”
However, the digital era is making faculty ownership of intellectual property more difficult, she said, and not just at for-profit colleges. Scholarship now can be easily packaged and disseminated, which has led to “increasing pressure on faculty to assign their rights to the institution.” (AAUP has published policy statements  on distance education and related intellectual property issues.)
One APUS professor, who asked to remain anonymous, was skeptical that adjuncts would be fairly compensated for their textbook submissions. And while participation is voluntary, the professor said non-contributing faculty members might be forced to use textbooks they don’t want, and that were written by peers who might not have the same expertise.
The professor also said it would be difficult to complete a quality e-textbook under the short timeline proposed by the university.
Robert B. Townsend, an expert on the faculty job market and deputy director of the American Historical Association, said he understands why professors at APUS might be concerned. For example, he said it would be a challenge for an editor to pull together a good e-textbook with contributions that come from various faculty members. More proven is the technique of having a primary author with an “overarching narrative voice.”
But Townsend said he wasn’t surprised that the university’s faculty members would avoid criticizing the plan publicly. That’s because non-tenured faculty generally don’t like taking any risks that might jeopardize their next contract renewal. The university's full-time professors are salaried employees without tenure, Powell said, while part-time faculty accept work orders for classes they agree to teach. (APUS employs roughly 250 full-time and 1,200 part-time faculty members, according to an Education Department database.)
“Who wants to jump on those eggshells and find out?” Townsend said.
Stielow said he was confident that the university’s digital text project, although still in its infancy, would benefit both students and professors. By tapping faculty members as both writers and editors, and enlisting the help of librarians, the APUS ePress is a “team effort” that focuses on areas of scholarship where the university is particularly strong, such as homeland security, intelligence and transportation.
The university’s leaders say the project will help keep them on the cutting edge, a necessity for an online institution.
“Higher education has reached a tipping point in the evolution of course materials, especially for online education,” Stielow said in written statement  about the project’s launch, adding that it would “blend the best of the traditional academic press with new digital avenues, helping redefine higher education in the information age.”