Going Digital ≠ Lower Textbook Prices

April 5, 2012

If textbook affordability is the Holy Grail, then those of us who work in higher education are careening Monty Python-like as we search for it, stirring up unnecessary obstacles for ourselves all along the way.

Consider the dual paths we are taking. First, there’s the all-encompassing push to “go digital,” as if somehow the output format of a book, whether it is electronic or print, is the sole determinant of cost.

That is the wrong way of thinking. Input – the price of content – is much more important to the total cost of course materials than output – the format in which those materials are ultimately consumed by the student.

Then, there’s the push to “go open.” In recent years, as concern over textbook affordability has grown, this idea has received much attention, with “open educational resources” -- or “OER” materials, as they are often called -- leading the charge.

This too, seems attractive, but we are a long way from having OER content dominate the learning landscape, even if much of it is free. The creation of content by academic publishers is part of our literary and reporting traditions, and any system for delivering content to students should take both “free and open” and commercially produced materials into account.

In fact, the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks is to facilitate the merging of traditional and free content, allowing instructors to include exactly what is necessary, and freeing students from the rigid and expensive traditional offerings from academic publishers. In this model, “book” costs are lowered regardless of output format.

If we are cognizant of ways of merging different types of content in order to get the biggest academic bang for the buck, we must also be mindful of methods to access this content; to break it apart, to “disaggregate” it from the traditional bounds of textbooks and to present it to students in an effective manner.

Indeed, the main benefit of new technologies in education should be to provide more choice to instructors, and ultimately to students. If a professor can mix open content with chapters from relevant textbooks, timely journal articles, and up-to-the-minute news reporting, then he or she can truly provide a unique “book” to students, untethered from the rigidity of the traditional offerings from academic publishers.

Textbook affordability has been a hot topic for at least a decade, but it has grown even hotter since the 2008 market meltdown, which greatly affected Americans’ spending power at the same time that the cost of college – already rising – began to skyrocket. Various Band-Aid solutions have emerged in response to textbook costs, with rentals the “in” solution for awhile and even the longstanding “gray market” of purchasing textbooks on international versions of websites, where the cost of some books in Europe can be materially lower than those in the U.S.

More and more students, at least anecdotally, are taking the route of “book sharing,” mixing and matching content among themselves rather than paying the significant freight asked of them by the colleges and universities they attend. That behavior is, in itself, a form of disaggregation, for it is breaking the traditional one-to-one relationship between student and assigned book.

But the disaggregated model I foresee is the one that we have been building for the past year at AcademicPub. It allows the professor to comb for the very best content in his or her discipline, mix and match that content into a consistently presented and compelling narrative or set of chapters, and to deliver the completed product to students in the format that the student prefers -– print or digital, whichever method leads to the best learning result for that student.

By all means let’s aspire to make the materials we assign our students more affordable, but we mustn’t fall victim to any “magic bullet” scenarios. Actions which fail to account for the cost of content will fall short. Failure to account for the value and ubiquity of existing texts from leading scholars through traditional publishers won’t cut it either. Going digital alone won’t lower the cost of textbooks, but disaggregating content just might work.

Bio

Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook, Inc., which launched AcademicPub (TM), in April 2011.

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