Taming the Textbook Market

Embracing a new model for publishing academic learning content may help faculty avoid repeating the errors of scholarly journal communication -- and librarians are ready to help, Steven Bell writes.

June 11, 2010

What is the biggest complaint that faculty hear from students? Too much reading? Exams too hard? How about “these textbooks are too damn expensive.” What if instead of being forced to buy a $160 textbook, your students had access to a compendium of online resources handpicked and customized by you, and available at no cost to them, unless they preferred to purchase a low-cost, print-on-demand copy?

Instead of exerting energy on ways to avoid buying the textbook, students would then be engaged in learning with your curricular content. In the current Wild West textbook publishing environment we need affordable, student-friendly textbooks that give faculty maximum flexibility in choosing and mashing up content to support student learning. Free or low-cost textbooks are no dream, but making it happen will require a concerted effort from faculty, their students, and librarians.

The higher education industry should at least agree on one thing when it comes to textbooks: the current system for publishing, distributing and pricing them is rather broken. The challenge lies in reimagining the textbook so that faculty construct the right set of learning materials that engages their students in deep learning, without bankrupting them. The open educational resources movement is already laying a foundation for that type of radical change. We need to move beyond and away from the textbook concept altogether.

In its place I recommend the term Curricular Resource Strategies (CRS), which I first heard used by Mark Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to describe the new thinking in learning materials. CRS affords faculty greater freedom of choice and flexibility in delivering learning material to their students, offers the possibility of using everything across the content spectrum from costlier traditional print texts to the latest open digital formats, is drastically more affordable for students, allows faculty greater control of their intellectual property -- and still offers revenue streams for traditional textbook publishers and college bookstores.

While it may require more personal effort from faculty, the reward is a unique opportunity to create a new model for publishing academic learning content that avoids the mistakes of the old system. Faculty can learn from their librarian colleagues, whose past experiences in managing scholarly communication offers a lesson in how not to structure a publishing model.

Here’s where things went wrong. For years faculty gave away (and in many cases continue to give away) their scholarly works to publishers who would edit and repackage the content and then sell it back, at hard-to-justify prices, to the same academic institutions that had produced it. Few faculty paid attention as the institution’s librarians financed the system by paying exorbitant journal subscription fees. Give away the intellectual capital of the institution; buy it back at unsustainable prices. An oversimplification, but that’s roughly how we got into this mess.

Hope for mending what’s broken in that system is on the horizon. Scholars are publishing more frequently in open- and public-access journals. Faculty conducting research with National Institutes of Health grants must now deposit their accepted papers in a free, community-accessible database. New models where author payments are used to support open access are gaining traction. At a growing number of institutions faculty are passing resolutions to support open-access publishing. But there’s still a long way to go in achieving a fair and equitable scholarly communications system, one in which the academy wrests back control of the content from the publishers.

With textbooks, faculty are at a critical juncture. Depending on the choices made now, they may doom themselves to repeat higher education’s scholarly communications mistakes of the past -- or they can choose to leverage technology to establish a CRS model that puts them, not the publishers, in control of their own content. By closely examining the opportunities that CRS affords, we can best avoid the failures that brought on the scholarly communications crisis.

Academic librarians can help by offering their expertise with institutional repositories. A network of non-library repositories for these types of materials is already forming around the globe, but they are scattered, lack coordination and are largely unknown to the majority of faculty. Repositories of this type can form the backbone of the CRS model. Examples of such repositories include MERLOT, the Maricopa Learning Exchange, WISC-Online, the North Carolina Learning Object Repository, The OER Commons, The Open Educational Resources Center for California, and the Community College Open Textbook Collaborative.

Those knowledgeable about institutional repositories could be called on to explore how a network of mega and local repositories could best serve the distribution and sharing of curricular resource content. Academic librarians can also contribute to this improved model by ending current practices of buying textbooks for some or all courses. The acquisition of single or multiple copies of textbooks for placement on reserve at the library is a long-accepted procedure that applies a Band-Aid solution to a wicked problem. While this short-term solution helps just a few students overwhelmed by textbook prices, in the long run it merely keeps this terminally ill patient on endless life support. Working together, faculty and academic librarians can end the cycle and create change.

Here’s how it would work. In a digital publishing world faculty have expanded options for both the range of content they use in teaching and the media by which they are delivered. In a print-only world, textbooks made perfect sense as compendiums that gave students the bulk of the knowledge needed for almost any course – and met students’ expectations as learning devices. While some print textbooks will always make sense for some courses, print alone no longer suffices. Even textbook publishers recognize this when they bundle supplementary DVDs and links to websites that update content. Faculty no longer need textbook publishers to assemble, package and distribute the content for them.

Their academic libraries offer access to millions of articles and e-book pages, already licensed for use by students, whose links can easily be integrated into learning management systems or web pages. Libraries also offer access to video and audio content with advanced technology for inserting clips or whole works into digital spaces. Open educational resource sites, such as Flatworld Knowledge and Connexions, offer faculty more formal textbook content in digital format. Faculty can choose to use all or segments of the content. From these many choices, faculty can pick and choose their content and then mash it into a learning resource. The success of CRS does, to an extent, depend on faculty willingness to openly share their intellectual property by contributing it to open educational resource sites rather than giving it away to publishers in exchange for typically limited royalties.

If this sounds like faculty creating a free-form package of learning content, it can be. But there’s room here for even more options. Learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The CRS model is hospitable to a wide range of content in multiple formats. Think of CRS as an institutional solution that recognizes the full spectrum across which a multitude of learning content is spread. On one end of the spectrum traditional print textbooks are situated. At the other end would be completely open digital textbooks in full and granular format.

In between are educational materials of all types, such as digitized book chapters, scholarly articles, blog posts, multimedia clips, online tutorials, simulations, website links, primary research materials and practically any other learning resources faculty think will help their students learn. If CRS sounds a bit like a coursepack, that’s because there is a core commonality. It’s a customized, faculty-designed compilation of the best learning resources for a specific course. Where it deviates dramatically is ownership and access. Executed correctly, faculty and students would use these materials in an open, shared environment that reduces or eliminates copyright infringement.

What would it look like? In some ways a course designed and developed with a CRS approach would resemble existing course sites that incorporate a mix of content organized to promote student learning. For example, a course on “Technology for Teachers” developed by Wesley Fryer demonstrates how multiple formats are combined to create non-textbook learning materials. The home page provides access to a wikibook on the course topic. The content for each week of the course is a mix of web sites, readings, video and other media.

While Fryer needed to locate and organize all the resources for each course, no doubt more time-consuming than ordering a textbook, he has more control over the selection and customization of the learning resources on his site. As more faculty at a single institution or at multiple institutions made use of CRS and were willing to share their content in widely accessible repositories, locating and connecting to learning materials would grow more efficient and require less time.

As with all hopeful strategies for change, there are some roadblocks. Faculty reading this must surely be wondering what happens to their textbook royalties; textbook publishers should rightfully be concerned about their future markets; and college bookstores, either independent or contracted, need to maintain their revenue streams. And students must surely play some role in support of any new model. Open-access content is open, but not free. Someone somewhere has to pay in some way to make the model sustainable. Here are some ideas and caveats for a CRS model:

  • In a CRS model all existing learning materials, including traditional textbooks, are part of the spectrum. Textbook publishers and bookstores will continue to serve as providers, but most likely in some diminished capacity. We know many students still prefer print versions of their textbooks. CRS allows for all possible distribution media. Students who prefer free or low-cost digital versions can use them, but those who prefer print can get it on-demand. The cost is much lower, perhaps $25 or $30 for an entire textbook, and royalties from print versions can go to publishers, bookstores and faculty. CRS is hospitable to options such as Macmillan Publishing’s Dynamic Books. One of several innovative alternatives to traditional textbooks, it allows faculty to create customized textbooks using the publisher’s existing content, and faculty can add their own chapters, images or other material. Collaboration between traditional bookstores and open platform publishers can work too. Flat World Knowledge recently inked a deal with Barnes & Noble for the distribution of print copies of Flat World’s catalog through B&N campus outlets.
  • Royalties are one obvious incentive for faculty to stay with the current textbook publishing system. But how many blockbuster textbooks are there? The reality is that few faculty-authored textbooks offer personal financial success even when the publishers charge astronomical amounts for them. Faculty must decide where their priorities lie, and hopefully there is a preference for affordable educational resources for students. It is entirely possible that a system of payments, albeit small ones, could be built into a CRS model, most likely from on-demand printing revenue.
  • The other reward system, tenure, is a bit trickier. Depending on the discipline, authoring a successful textbook may contribute to the case for tenure. Just as is happening in the publishing of open access scholarly journals, higher education must rethink the tradition of valuing only those publications that appear in the highest-impact journals if an alternative system of academic publishing has a chance to succeed. Scholarly presses can play a more significant role as a vehicle for faculty to electronically distribute scholarly monographic content into a CRS model while achieving the recognition needed for tenure. Our institutions must support this by providing scholarly presses with the resources needed to achieve sustainability in any new publishing model.
  • Making journal literature freely available to the public is far from free. In a presentation made at Columbia University’s Scholarly Communications Program, Mike Rossner, executive director of the Rockefeller University Press, told the audience that a single article in its biology journals costs $10,000 to produce. CRS will have costs, too. One way to support open-access textbooks is a “student pays” system. Every college or university that makes use of open access textbooks could pay into an institutional fund using monies collected from students as part of their tuition or as a textbook fee. The advantage is that each student could pay $50 per semester to the fund and in return gets all of his or her textbooks at no cost in digital format (with a print-on-demand for fee option). Granted, fees add to the growing cost of higher education, but the trade-off is that all a typical student would pay for all of his or her textbooks is $50.
  • Academic librarians can add their support by providing the expertise to create a CRS global repository where open education resources dwell. Their experience in negotiating licenses with publishers and assisting faculty in author rights negotiations would be invaluable in brokering the deals that would make for more equitable distribution of content across all formats. Librarians are already delving into this new world of CRS by negotiating site licenses for single textbooks so students gain unlimited electronic access to textbooks at no cost. Academic librarians will need to offer their financial support to a CRS model as well.
  • Perhaps the hardest sell for faculty is time. How long will it take each semester to construct the CRS solution? More or less time than it takes to maintain a courseware site? When I shared the CRS idea with a faculty colleague, that was his first question; how much time? He suggested that given a choice between spending two hours on configuring a set of curricular resources and 10 minutes to click a few links and order a $200 textbook for students, the latter has mighty strong appeal for many faculty. If the CRS model is to have any chance it must be convenient, intuitive and fast. Working together, librarians, learning technologists and their computer services colleagues could create a system that allows faculty to browse the local and global curricular resource repositories for learning objects. Imagine a template or interface that then allows faculty members to integrate their content into a package for delivery to students. As with courseware, once compiled this learning module requires only modest updating time. This all requires more work than simply purchasing a textbook, but the benefits accrued to students and their families should make that extra effort rewarding. And as my faculty colleague noted, he and many of his fellow humanists are already doing without costly traditional compendium-style textbooks. They instead favor shorter, less expensive books and novels, along with individual articles for which students find links conveniently placed in course sites. In this way, these faculty are already taking the additional time needed as a first step on the path to the CRS model.
  • Consider all the beneficial outcomes beyond just providing free learning material to students. When all students get their textbooks at low cost, the incentive to illegally copy and pirate textbooks is eliminated. When textbooks are affordable, all students can have copies. There is no pedagogical advantage of the current system. When students are forced to use old editions, rent copies that they must return at the end of the course, are forced to share one copy among multiple students, or simply forgo their textbooks altogether, the quality of learning is greatly diminished.

In this Wild West phase of textbook evolution, where just about anything goes with platforms and pricing models, faculty have a real opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to make the decisions that allow them to play the role of sheriff and bring order to a chaotic landscape. The alternative is having publisher solutions forced on them. Savvy publishers will work to keep faculty hooked on their system by rolling out an ever expanding buffet of prepackaged lesson plans, ready-to-launch slide shows, automatically graded quizzes, shared-revenue mechanisms and whatever else it takes to keep faculty connected to the existing textbook model. As they examine the multiple alternative textbook options emerging, faculty should take time to learn from the lessons of the scholarly publishing past. That history is one of lost opportunities and outright mistakes.

As an adjunct faculty member, I understand the lure of the digital commercial textbook. It’s more than just a textbook. With all those added features for delivering course content along with integration into courseware systems, what’s not to like? One of the objectives of learning technology is to save faculty and students time on tasks. The less effort spent getting to the content, the more time we can devote to thinking critically about it. So publishers will dangle the bait.

If faculty bite there may be no turning back. Faculty must think carefully about controlling their rights as authors. They should also speak to their librarian colleagues to better understand the past failures of our currently deeply flawed system of scholarly publishing. Now is the time to create a new CRS model that avoids repetition of past mistakes that doomed higher education to squander enormous resources on buying back content it creates and then gives away freely.

The open access movement struggles to gain widespread faculty support, despite a few encouraging resolutions passed by faculty senates at Harvard, Duke and elsewhere, because there’s little concrete reward for faculty in giving up the current tenure system based on publication in premier journals. But as those resolutions to support open access publishing demonstrate, faculty can and do acknowledge that the greater good of societal access to research and learning materials should take precedence over personal reward systems.

The CRS model should gain widespread support from students because they gain so much from a system that frees them from the tyranny of textbook costs. Undergraduates have little interest in fixing a broken scholarly communication system, but they should have tremendous interest in -- and a willingness to exert pressure on faculty to adopt -- a CRS model. The Wild West of textbook publishing is getting a little wilder every day. It’s up to everyone in higher education to bring new order to the production and distribution of traditional textbook content. It can begin with faculty committing to avoid dooming themselves to repeat the mistakes of our scholarly communications past.


Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian at Temple University. He blogs at The Kept-Up Academic Librarian.


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