ATG Original: Open Access Foments a Textbook Takeover, Part 3: Bringing Choice into a “Broken” Educational System

by | Jul 25, 2018 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

By Nancy K. Herther

(Click here for Part 1: OER Takes Main Stage; and here for Part 2: Should Commercial Publishers Worry? )

Between 2006 and 2016, the cost of higher education has risen by 63% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries, less federal funding, and the costs of technology and access have been significant; however, education in general experienced similar rises: “From January 2006 to July 2016, consumer prices for tuition and fees for private elementary and high schools increased 55 percent. Over that period, consumer prices for childcare and nursery schools increased 39 percent.”

At the same time, the cost of print textbooks increased 65% in the last ten years. Although the increases have moderated, students still find pricing a major issue. At the same time, commercial publishers have faced the digital onslaught with efforts to improve engagement, enhance learning and integrate new technological options into their core products – one result has been increased pricing to cover the costs of investments in technology, methods and production.

Technology clearly entails a cost (startup, investment, experimentation, integration, ongoing maintenance and change). However, at the same time, technology is giving new opportunities to mediate across physical, economic and other divides. Are we caught between a rock and a hard place? Efforts like OA2020 are promising even more change in the education sector with commitments by countries and educational institutions to summarily end connections with commercial journal publishers.  Clearly, we are in the midst of disruption – but will we see seismic change in the near future?


According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. In-state public college for is 2017–2018 academic year averaged $25,290, a private college averaged $50,900 – all this per year.

At the graduate level, things get only worse: “In 2017-18, the average in-state tuition and fee price for full-time undergraduates at public master’s universities is $8,670, compared with $10,830 at doctoral universities. The average published tuition and fee price for undergraduates at private nonprofit master’s universities is $29,960, compared with $42,920 at doctoral universities.”


Kathleen Hansen

Kathleen Hansen, Professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, recently co-authored two highly reviewed books. Future-Proofing the News: Preserving the First Draft of History published by Rowman & Littlefield and an OA textbook Information Strategies for Communicators. Her experience is perhaps more common than not.  “When the open access opportunity presented itself, we jumped at the chance to move the moodle-hosted content onto an actual e-text platform. And we were thrilled that the book was openly available to those at other institutions, some of which have adopted parts of the text that fit their curriculum. The other advantage of the e-text is that it can be updated regularly. The subject matter we are teaching changes constantly so it is important to have the most recent materials and examples for students. It is a trivial task to update the content each semester.”

“I would hope that academics would see the value for their students in doing this,” Hansen continues. “However, most R-1 institutions do not reward Tenure-Track faculty efforts directed towards teaching. As long as that is the case, there will be little incentive for faculty to use their precious research time on creating OA content for students. The book publishing industry is stuck in the 19th century and the e-text market is now a captive of monopoly companies so it isn’t clear how the economic models are going to work going forward for e-publishing. Faculty have to be willing to direct their time and energy to something with no monetary compensation and no institutional reward. Not likely except in unusual circumstances.”


A new study from British Columbia examines the performance of students using open education resources (OER) in both print and digital formats compared to a traditional textbook from a commercial publisher. Kwantlen team led by Professor Rajiv Jhangiani, Special Advisor to the Provost on Open Education and a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, studied the use of OER on their campus.  Investigating the perceptions, use, and impact of open textbooks: A survey of post-secondary students in British Columbia,” provides a very interesting lens for viewing today’s collegiate environment for OER. The study found that “6% of respondents to perceive the quality of their open textbook to be equal or superior to a commercial textbook.” However, the study also found that “respondents were almost three times as likely to indicate a preference (if cost were not a factor) for using only print textbooks than using only digital textbooks,” which the authors believe might be explained by  noting that this “result is consistent with the literature on students’ textbook format preferences, particularly in courses in which instructors do not model or use the features of e-textbooks (e.g., highlighting, annotation, searchability, easy navigation). In other words, low digital literacy (among both students and faculty) likely shapes preferences for textbook format.” Authors suggest that “low digital literacy (among both students and faculty) likely shapes preferences for textbook format,” even today.

The study concluded that:

“there were no meaningful differences in how often and how effectively students engaged with their assigned textbook. Given that students’ exam performance was gauged solely by their answers to multiple-choice questions that could have been answered by reading any of the textbooks, it appears that students’ textbook studying habits do not explain the differences in exam performance.”

Swirling around this movement is the tremendous growth of both online educational institutions and free learning opportunities that are increasingly being accepted by many employers more interested in performance requirements than  college degrees. Earlier this year, Babson Survey Research Group survey found that more than 6.3 million American undergraduate students had taken at least one online course in Fall 2016 – over 5% higher than the previous year. In the “past three years, the survey found 31.6 percent of all students now take at least one distance education course (a total of 6,359,121 students); distance students are fairly evenly split between those who take both distance and non-distance courses (3,356,041 students) and those who take exclusively distance courses (3,003,080).

Clearly this represents a major challenge to traditional colleges and universities. However, this isn’t the only shift that academe is facing today.


Today in America, we are seeing a major tectonic shift in the very structure of the academy.  American Association of University Professors has been following (and deploring) new faculty personnel policies for even the elite colleges and universities across the country.  They use the term “contingent faculty” to describe those “part- and full-time non-tenure-track faculty….[whose] common characteristic is that their institutions make little or no long-term commitment to them. Today, more than 50 percent of all faculty appointments are part-time.”

Although this trend is also clear in many other industries, for higher education the use of adjuncts, “part-time lecturers, or graduate assistantships” is being used to save the monies they have traditionally invested in the growth and development of their faculty both as instructors and as researchers.

AAUP notes that “many faculty in so-called “part-time” positions actually teach the equivalent of a full-time course load,” yet these hard-working instructors have no clear path to full-time employment (with normal benefits) and often are hired at the last minute and frequently have no on-campus office – let alone a laboratory or other research support

  • “Over one-fifth of part-time appointments are held by graduate student employees, whose chances of obtaining tenure-track positions in the future are increasingly uncertain.
  • To support themselves, part-time faculty often commute between institutions and prepare courses on a grueling timetable, making enormous sacrifices to maintain interaction with their students.
  • Since faculty classified as part-time are typically paid by the course, without benefits, many college teachers lack access to health insurance and retirement plans….
  • Non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.
  • While a small percentage of part-time faculty are specialists or practitioners of a profession such as law or architecture and teach a class on the side, this situation is the exception rather than the norm.”

The AAUP further notes that “most department chairs, deans, and tenured or tenure-track faculty members would likely point to budget shortfalls, last-minute increases in enrollments, and the inability to win approval for new tenure-track faculty positions. Yet, these simple answers obscure a larger, systemic trend: the majority of the faculty at US colleges and universities has been moved off the tenure track.”

In this environment, can one truly criticize academics whose own livelihoods may depend on the 25% royalties that they are able to get from their investments into creating educational materials?  In fact, I contacted over a dozen publishing and academic consultants and critics asking for their perspectives on the role of faculty, commercial publishers and OA and none were willing to be quoted for this article.  Most made it clear that we have a broken system, but that any search for ‘bad guys’ in this was the wrong approach.  A better investment would be in finding workable solutions that address the problems with support for education today.


Student debt is another clear issue of growing importance and drag on our educational system. In a just-released report from the American Association for University Women, not only is debt an increasing issue; but the debt has gender implications as well.  Female student debt at the time of 4-year graduation is now on average $2,700 more than males. And that gap is $1,400 more than just in 2012. In the report, author Kevin Miller ”estimates that the outstanding student debt held by women alone could reach $1 trillion over the next year. If the ratio of debt owed by women versus men stays the same, then men hold about $550 billion at that time.” In an age of uncertain futures and mixed employment reports, this is yet another indication of the challenges facing higher education.

In April, a disturbing report was published by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Still Hungry and Homeless in College, “the largest national survey assessing the basic security needs university student,” included “over 20,000 students at 35 4-year colleges and universities, as well as students at community colleges.” Key findings include:

  • 36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey. This year’s estimate for community college students is 42%, but our larger study last year found 56%.
  • 36% of university students were housing insecure in the last year. Housing insecurity affected 51% of community college students in last year’s study, and 46% in this year’s study.
  • 9% of university students were homeless in the last year. In comparison, 12% of community college students were homeless in this year’s survey, and 14% in last year’s survey.

The disruption and chaos is clear in the situation for students today. Showing the effects of the current system, yet have no real voice in the search for solutions to a system that, at times, seems broken.


The National Association of College Stores reports varies efforts by their member bookstores to alleviate some of the pain – from selling used books, rentals, and buyback programs.  Temple University Sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab in her book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dreamin which she followed 3,000 students who entered Wisconsin public colleges and universities in 2008 with the support of federal aid and Pell Grants. “Just as Americans decided that college was essential, states began spending less on public higher education and the price of college rose. At the same time, the financial aid system, long intended to make college affordable, failed to keep up with growing student and family need. Student loans became the stop-gap. And to make matters worse, for nearly 80% of the public, family income declined.”

“And when it comes to the group that this financial aid system was designed to help the most,” Goldrick-Rab continues, “those families earning an average of $16,000 per year – the net price of college now amounts to a whopping 84% of their income.” And she lays the blame on federal and state legislatures. “Competing priorities and political preferences for tax cuts meant that as college enrollment in the state grew, subsidies on a per-student basis for public colleges and university fell. For each $1,000 in taxpayer support, the state was spending less and less.”

Yet, Goldrick-Rab sees hope. “An improved college financing system could help America create a future where more people can use their own hard work to get ahead. These college successes will get better jobs, contribute more to the common good as taxpayers and lean on the government less for support throughout their lives. Such a future would be far brighter than the one we face today.”


Nearly 100 colleges and universities in Ohio have joined together to form a type of ‘buying club’ to reduce the cost of textbooks. By negotiating prices with publishers, the consortium was able to reduce prices by as much as 80%, which is expected to save students in Ohio nearly $40 million. This solution has its roots in the pressure that Ohio Gov. John Kasich put into his two-year budget plan in 2017 which would ask colleges themselves to provide textbooks to students. Kaisch and the legislature changed the language to instead require Ohio colleges and universities conduct studies on costs.  The result was a proposal that led to a  joint pilot program between the University System of Ohio and Flat World Knowledge, the largest publisher of free and open college textbooks for students worldwide. The program will allow 1,000 Ohio students to receive digital textbooks for free.

Faculty in the pilot who select Flat World textbooks for their courses, and agree to participate in a research project focused on student learning, can offer their students free access to the Flat World Knowledge suite of digital learning materials and low-cost access to print textbooks. “The University System of Ohio works hard every day to provide students with low-cost options that promote student learning,” Chancellor Eric Fingerhut explained. “This innovative pilot will evaluate cost-effective options for Ohio college students and set the stage for significant system-wide savings.”

Under the program, students can choose their preferred textbook formats, and “the materials are non-expiring and not digital rights management (DRM) copy-protected, allowing students to transfer the content from device to device. Students who prefer a printed book will have the option to purchase a low-cost softcover copy. The University of Dayton already helps students pay for books by offering a book scholarship of up to $4,000 to students who visit campus and fill out at FAFSA application.”


For some time, libraries have been working with faculty to create course-packs (of articles and other materials) that can be made available for the price of copyright rights and made available online or through campus bookstores in what the American Library Association calls “affordable course content.” As ALA notes “libraries have always provided a variety of mechanisms to support faculty and students in the classroom. Instruction to support student research, customized library course pages linking students to relevant content, and both print and electronic reserves are some examples. Building new services and infrastructure that further support teaching and learning are a growth of previous services in response to the changing environment.”

A key driver behind the activity in Europe is the European Commission’s goal that, by 2020, all research will be freely accessible as soon as it is published. Dutch, Swedish and German libraries and universities nation-wide have been working to see that, at least for journals, OA becomes the law of the land. Sweden has set a date for complete research OA by 2026; , Switzerland by 202 negotiators have set themselves the target of complete open-access research by 2026, and in Switzerland the planned date is 2024.

“One reason that libraries no longer fear an end to their contracts with publishers is that a growing number of free versions of paywalled articles can be found online as preprints or accepted manuscripts,” notes SPARC’s Heather Joseph. Joseph Esposito notes in the same article that the lack of push-back from faculty is the presence of  Sci-Hub. “Without Sci-Hub the researchers would be screaming at the libraries and state agencies not to cut them off.”

Here in the U.S., ‘big deals,’ are being dropped in favor of individual journal purchases; and libraries are now hosting their own pre-publication repositories and beginning to host OA publishing for their university communities.


Jim O’Donnell

Arizona State University Librarian Jim O’Donnell, in a recent LIBLICENSE posting mused that “Without knowing anywhere near enough facts of the case, I think it’s permitted to wonder whether a lower price guaranteed for a larger number of students might not in some cases bring equal revenue to publishers and authors over a current situation where non-purchase, reliance on second-hand texts, and the like already brings less than the notional maximum revenue that would come from 100% of students paying retail price. My view is that libraries will be increasingly pressed to engage in this space, whatever models emerge as preferable.” Who knows what the future might hold; however, at this point it seems that no options are off the table – especially a strong future for commercial publishers.

In an EdChoice thought piece called Rethinking Regulation by Forbes contributor Mike McShane the issue of regulation in the educational sector is examined in light of the value of regulations – from the Department of Education through local school boards and legislatures is examined. “Attempts to use regulation to not just prevent harm but to drive quality often fall short. Regulators of education at the federal, state and local level would be prudent to refocus their regulatory desires on harm reduction, not micromanagement….All of these processes are political, and all are subject to the biases and ideologies that the stakeholders who are consulted in the process bring to the table. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it should yield a bit more humility when it comes to the kinds of consequential decisions that are made based on these standards and these assessments.” Evolution versus creationism, No Child Left Behind, Bilingual Education Act, California’s Proposition 227 which required all instruction to be in English, Common Core, Race to the Top, School Choice, and so many others over the years. As McShane notes, “regulations are great for preventing bad things, but they are not great at fostering good things.”

Today far more than textbooks are in a state of disruption; however perhaps more emphasis on the critical needs and objectives of 21st century education will allow us all to find the equitable alternatives and solutions we need to move forward. Textbooks are certainly one of the issues faced by the academy, but not the only factor and, perhaps, not even the worst. At this point, few can speak with certainty about what the landscape will look like once the dust settles in this tornado of change.

As Jack Schneider wrote in a 2016 Atlantic article:

“American education has some obvious shortcomings. Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly….Regulations are great for preventing bad things, but they are not great at fostering good things.”

Change is happening, perhaps not as fast as some would like or in the direction preferred; however the changes are happening throughout the educational resource sector – and will continue to do so.

Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus.  [email protected]


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