The Textbook is not the Holy Grail

The move to digital does not necessarily lower the cost of textbooks. That much has been clear in these early days of the transition. Commercial textbook publishers offer their PDF “eTextbook” versions typically at about fifty percent of the cost of the new physical book. But once the astute student considers that these digital versions usually expire—vanish—after 180 days, and once she considers that the physical copy is often available for purchase or rent through online third parties at or below the digital price, then the appeal often wanes.

Caroline Vanderlip, in her article published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, makes this point too and believes that there’s another, better way forward. She calls it the “disaggregation model,” and it’s worth considering.

She argues, first off, that “textbook affordability is the Holy Grail” and that we’re “careening Monty-Python-like” down two paths in search of it: first is the all out effort to “go digital”—simply replace physical texts on the assumption that digital doesn’t cost as much to produce. Second, the move toward open educational resources (OERs)—something I’ve blogged a bit about here—so that faculty can make use of free materials available online. The digital direction is problematic, she rightly points out, because the real costs associated with commercial publisher content lies, well, with the content—and not so much with the form of its output. To that one must add significant marketing and sales costs—not only do they remain during the digital transition but I think they’re likely to rise (as the market becomes more competitive).

OERs are still a long way off from occupying a dominant position. And while she doesn’t spell out the reasons for this, I think it’s clear that unless foundations, educational institutions, and governments—the feds, states, foreign governments—make big capital commitments to OER projects then quality will be spotty and adoption will not go mainstream. Producing high quality content is expensive—not only in terms of its initial production, but also as an ongoing and sustainable project. The commercial publishers have long known what the OER folks are only beginning to grapple with.

I hate to be a knight who says “ni,” but if there’s a “holy grail” in all this it certainly isn’t affordability. It’s not even directly the textbook. What matters are the outcomes: the learning outcome, student retention and understanding within a particular discipline, and graduation rates. What matters, in other words, is student success, however one wants to define that. And we who are concerned with course materials in particular often lose sight of that.

Textbooks today are an integral part of that drive toward success but they are obviously only one aspect of it. And within the textbook domain affordability is critically important—especially because for millions of students the lack of affordability denies them adequate access to these materials—but so too is the quality of these materials. In fact, most faculty would easily (and I’d say rightly) choose superior content that costs more over weak content that’s inexpensive or free. And an instructor would do that because she believes that the higher quality materials help lead to better outcomes.

The “disaggregation model” that Vanderlip promotes certainly has its appeal as a way of improving quality and student outcomes by focusing precisely and surgically on the material that an instructor feels her students need. In fact some faculty today are already engaged with exactly what she proposes: they cut and paste commercial content and freely available online content and offer course readers to their students. In fact, our company offers a comprehensive service to do just that. But the course reader model can only be successful if faculty are willing to take the time to curate the materials that will leave the finished product at least as good as the commercially available materials. Given the state of higher ed teaching—with more than 70% of courses taught by adjuncts or otherwise part-time help—this is a tall order.

The truth, as is so often the case, is more brackish than this. And that’s because the world of higher education is so heterogeneous: faculty within institutions have widely differing needs and views on how best to achieve successful outcomes, and institutions themselves differ so widely on these same issues. What this points to, instead, is the need to accommodate—and our company is built on this premise—a situation in which no single text solution is likely to win the day. Some faculty and institutions are moving swiftly to embrace digital; for some (within that group) OER is the promised future. For others, course readers and disaggregation makes the most sense.  And while those considerations are going on across the country, the vast majority of faculty and students respectively teach and learn by turning pages the old fashioned way.

Textbook Affordability Commentary