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As college instructors begin to think about what materials to assign in their fall classes, we can expect to see renewed interest in the debate over the cost of college textbooks. For example, not too long ago the Financial Times published a piece proclaiming that open educational resources -- or OERs -- would set textbooks “free.” Soon after, student public interest research groups published a report that similarly painted OERs as education's savior in the face of rising costs.

As a professor of psychological and brain sciences who has spent much of his career creating material designed to maximize learning and student success, I want nothing more than to see my students succeed. Yet I can’t help but feel that conversations about open educational resources severely miss the mark. At best, proponents of OERs overstate their potential; at worst, they draw our attention -- and valuable resources -- away from far more pressing challenges facing higher education today.

The Real Crisis in Higher Education

The rising cost of college is undoubtedly a major concern, and one that virtually every student feels in one way or another. It needs to be addressed. But looking at the system as a whole, the problems that high costs create simply do not compare to the true crisis in higher education: our dismal graduation rates.

Based on national statistics, of the students who enter four-year colleges this fall, we can expect that only about three-fifths will have graduated six years from now. For those who enter two-year schools, less than a third will have graduated in three years. Frankly, that’s appalling.

Moreover, as concerning as student debt may be for students who graduate, it poses a far greater threat to the students who do not graduate. The College Board estimates that, over the course of a lifetime, workers who graduate from college will earn about 66 percent more than their counterparts who do not graduate from college. In a very real sense, increasing graduation rates would significantly ease the financial burden associated with college.

The Hidden Cost of Free Resources

Given the investment that a college education represents, students simply must have access to the tools that will most effectively help them succeed. Unfortunately, most open educational resources fall short.

In large part, that’s because they are usually little more than traditional textbooks, distributed digitally. They’re new versions of the same kinds of materials that have been around for decades, even as student expectations have changed and graduation rates have plummeted. Worse, they’re often poorly curated, and revisions and updates are sporadic at best.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that these “new” open resources are generally among the least innovative solutions available today, and they ultimately do little more than further entrench an ineffective status quo.

Now, compare that with today’s latest paid digital learning tools that are based on technological advances and discoveries from learning scientists that have emerged in the last decade. Such tools are not textbooks in the traditional sense -- they’re dynamic, adaptive learning systems, and they facilitate highly impactful learning experiences in a way that no traditional textbook could. They deliver deeply personalized lessons for students, giving continuous feedback and support, all while providing educators with insights that allow us to reach our students more effectively.

I for one can tell you that the availability of these solutions offers a better educational experience for students. In my introductory psychology courses, for example, rather than assigning a traditional (linear) textbook, I can now assign an adaptive online version that customizes the way it presents content for each student, based on that student’s individual needs. The tool continually poses questions to assess each student’s mastery of material, and then provides a unique path through the material, not only targeting each student’s strengths and weaknesses but ensuring that students review and reinforce what they’ve learned at optimal intervals. At the same time, it can help to identify particular elements of the material that students might be having trouble with, allowing the opportunity to fine-tune lectures in a way that no traditional textbook ever could.

Consequently, it is misguided to assume that the difference between open educational resources and paid resources is merely one of cost (although it’s worth mentioning that the solution I describe above comes at a cost significantly lower than that of the traditional hardcover text). The reality is that there are simply no open resources that are as flexible, reliable or impactful as the newest generation of education resources. My experience may be anecdotal, but carefully conducted research supports it: studies have repeatedly shown that students who use digitally personalized learning tools are more likely to do better in class, to receive better grades and to avoid dropping out.

The prospect of free textbooks is obviously appealing, both to students and to educators interested in reducing the overall cost of higher education. But it doesn’t make any sense to allow cost to be our primary concern in assessing resources that amount to just a fraction of students’ total expenditures -- especially when, meanwhile, those same resources can play an outsize role in determining whether students pass a course, graduate from college or are prepared for future employment.

Educators certainly should have the flexibility to use whichever tools best suit their needs, and open resources do have a place in our education system. But we do ourselves and our students a disservice if we suggest that they should replace paid resources outright. Our students can’t afford it.

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