higher education

Report Released by U.S. GAO Demonstrates the Need for Open Textbooks

Billy Meinke, June 14th, 2013

picture of textbooks
Books /John Liu / CC BY

A report issued by the United States Government Accountability Office on June 6th confirms a trend of the educational publishing industry: textbook costs to students at higher education institutions are rising 6% per year on average, and have risen 82% over the last decade. The study, ordered by Congress, looks at the efforts of publishers and colleges to increase the availability of textbook price information and “unbundled” buying options as required under provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA). The GAO also interviewed faculty regarding benefits of this transparency and offering of new options for students purchasing course materials.

What they found

Findings of the study indicated that faculty are more aware of textbook affordability issues than they used to be, though they see the appropriateness of materials as the most important factor when it comes to choosing resources to use in a course. HEOA requires publishers to include information about textbook prices when marketing to faculty, including wholesale prices and copyright dates of previous versions. While the report finds that publishers have passively made this information available through their websites and other materials, the GAO did not investigate whether publishers are actively providing the information to faculty as required by law. Making this information not only available, but highly visible, is the best way to support and equip faculty to consider textbook costs and potentially explore more affordable and flexible textbook options.

The study also finds that textbook price transparency helped students save money, particularly because of the information colleges and universities posted in course catalogs. Of the 150 institutions the GAO reviewed, 81 percent provided textbook information online during the months leading up to the fall 2012 semester. This allowed students the opportunity to consider the costs associated with each course and the time to seek cost-cutting alternatives like used books and renting. But even with this relief, textbook prices continue to reach into the $200-and-more range for high-enrollment courses. The end goal of the HEOA price transparency provisions is to pressure publishers into lowering their prices for good.

What this means

As Nicole Allen, Affordable Textbooks Advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) explained, “Overall, the report shows that the HEOA requirements have helped students and professors become more aware of textbook costs, and this awareness builds market pressure that will eventually lead to fairer prices and more affordable alternatives. Although right now publishers stubbornly continue driving prices skyward, they can only ignore the call for affordability for so long.”

The report mentions other textbook affordability efforts that colleges and universities explored alongside providing textbook price information. About two-thirds of the schools that the GAO interviewed offered an institutional rental program, and many offered price information for alternate formats, such as e-textbooks. For example, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges’ Open Course Library, which offers Open Educational Resources (OER) and other low cost materials for the system’s 81 largest courses, has saved students $5.5 million to date — about three times as much as the program cost. As the shift of resources towards efforts that provide more options to students and faculty is seen across the US and in other areas around the world, we anticipate more participation in communities around OER. Which is a great thing.

Next steps towards affordable textbooks

The HEOA requirements for textbook price transparency were a good first step, but there’s more work to do to solve rising textbook costs and lack of flexibility in choosing learning materials for courses. OER, like those created, revised, and shared in the Open Course Library have the potential to significantly offset these costs while at the same time providing more options for faculty and students to customize textbooks and other courseware to their needs. CC believes that OER is the next step in providing affordable, flexible, and truly open educational opportunities for students and faculty, allowing global citizens to better choose their own learning pathways.

picture of textbook
opensourceway / CC BY-SA

A joint statement issued by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on June 7th affirms the potential for OER as a solution: “As the GAO report suggests, transparency alone isn’t enough. Students need more access to high-quality, affordable options that challenge the current price structure set by a handful of publishers. Open Educational Resources, which include high-quality open textbooks that are free for faculty to adopt and students to use, offer a promising step forward. With many recent technology advancements it will be important for Congress to continue to learn more about the textbook sector to ensure that there are accountability mechanisms in place to protect students and taxpayers.”

The Student PIRGs announcement about the study is here
The full report of the GAO’s study can be found here
And lastly, a podcast with a member of GAO’s staff that led this study is here

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UNESCO and COL release open education policy document for higher education

Timothy Vollmer, November 1st, 2011

Today UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning jointly released the policy document Guidelines for Open Educational Resources (OER) in Higher Education. The purpose of the guidelines is “to encourage decision makers in governments and institutions to invest in the systematic production, adaptation, and use of OER and to bring them in to the mainstream of higher education in order to improve the quality of curricula and teaching and to reduce costs.”

UNESCO and COL note, “Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain and released with an open license (such as Creative Commons). They allow communities of practitioners and stakeholders to copy, adapt and share their resources legally and freely, in order to support high-quality and locally relevant teaching and learning.”

The guidelines indicate how the potential of OER can be harnessed to support quality teaching and learning by higher education stakeholders, including governments, higher education institutions, teaching staff, students, and quality assurance, accreditation, and academic recognition authorities.

The Guidelines for OER in Higher Education inform the process leading up to the 2012 World OER Congress. That event is being organized by UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Congress will 1) work to promote the UNESCO/COL OER Policy Guidelines; 2) share the world’s best practices in OER policies, initiatives, and experts; and 3) release the 2012 Paris OER Declaration calling on Governments to support the development and use of OERs.

The UNESCO/COL policy document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

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Kwame Nkrumah University adopts CC Attribution for OER policy

Jane Park, May 11th, 2011

KNUST OER production workshop team<br />
KNUST OER production workshop team by bagaball / CC BY

The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) has adopted a university-wide open educational resources (OER) policy with CC Attribution as the default license for university material. KNUST’s “Policy for Development and Use of Open Educational Resources (OER)” (pdf) outlines the purpose, role, and process of OER production at the university, and specifically states that,

“Materials produced which do not indicate any specific conditions for sharing will automatically be considered to have been shared under a Creative Commons Attribution license.”

The policy is available at the KNUST website and, in line with their policy, is available for use under CC BY.

KNUST is a partner institution in the African Health OER Network and works closely with the University of Michigan Medical School and Dental School to develop and distribute health OER. KNUST OER is hosted at http://web.knust.edu.gh/oer but is also duplicated for use at the Open.Michigan and OER Africa sites.

You can help us improve the case study on KNUST here.

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Flat World Knowledge Launches Open Textbook Internship Program

Jane Park, February 23rd, 2010

Flat World Knowledge, a commercial textbook publisher who uses CC licenses, aims to transform the way professors and college campuses think about textbooks through a new internship program for students. They asked for applicants last year, and launched the program last week with 19 students from colleges like New York University, Ohio State University, Auburn University, Indiana University, University of Denver, University of Florida and the College of Charleston. From eSchool News,

“The internships, introduced this year by open textbook provider Flat World Knowledge, let sophomore and junior business students earn college credit and a little spending cash if their sales pitch convinces a professor to use web-based texts that can be reorganized and modified by chapter, sentence, or word…

The company has grown in the past year as the open-content movement has gained traction in higher education, buttressed by the Creative Commons license [CC BY-NC-SA]—which doesn’t require permission from authors to change parts of a book—and the rising cost of textbooks.”

The press release states FWK’s intent to change “the college textbook market” by “taking a counter approach to the usual adversarial relationship between textbook publishers and college students.” By using CC licenses, Flat World Knowledge is exploring a business model that builds on open content by offering free digital textbooks via CC BY-NC-SA, but charging for the prints and supplementary materials. Their textbooks have been used at over 400 colleges, and they received $8 million in investments last year.

For more on Flat World Knowledge, swing by CC Salon NYC on March 3 where Eric Frank, the company’s founder and Chief Marketing Officer, will be talking in depth about what they do. If you’re not in the area, stay tuned for some Flip camera action, which I’ll link to here after the event.

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Free Culture X

Jane Park, February 1st, 2010

Free Culture X, a conference of Students for Free Culture, will be held February 13th at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Keynote addresses will be given by Harvard Berkman Center co-founder Jonathan Zittrain, the co-founder of the public interest group Public Knowledge, Gigi Sohn, and the director of American University’s Center for Social Media, Pat Aufderheide.

The conference is focused on developing greater openness among institutions of higher education by specifically investigating:

  • The politics of open networks,
  • Global access to knowledge, and
  • Open education.

Attendees have the option to pay-what-you-want with prizes (such as signed copies of books by Lawrence Lessig and Henry Jenkins or custom voicemail recordings by Jonathan Zittrain) awarded for sizable donations. You can register at http://conference.freeculture.org/register/. CC will be in attendance in addition to many past and current CC supporters.

All contents of the Free Culture X site are dedicated to the public domain with CC0.

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OER Session at UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education

Jane Park, July 16th, 2009

As part of UNESCO’s World Conference on Higher Education, UNESCO hosted a session and panel discussion on open educational resources (OER). The topic of the conference was “The New Dynamics of Higher Education and Research for Societal Change and Development,” and OER was considered an important dynamic in higher education. The conference took place over four days, ending on July 8, with over 1200 participants from 150 countries.

The OER session took place on July 7, 2009, and the summary is as follows:

“Building Knowledge Societies: Open Educational Resources Panel session

This conference aims to take stock of transformations in higher education since the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education and address the new dynamics likely to shape the strategic agenda for the development of higher education policies and institutions.

The growing Open Educational Resources (OER) movement has the objective of increasing access to quality educational content worldwide. Digital content that is open to re-use and adaptation is a public good that can be shared widely. The panel session is intended to explore OER as an example of a new dynamic in higher education that will contribute to building knowledge societies.”

The final Communiqué of the conference is available online. The Communiqué states some of the following conclusions:

“There is need for greater information, openness and transparency regarding the different missions and performance of individual institutions.”

“ODL (Open and Distance Learning) approaches and ICTs present opportunities to widen access to quality education, particularly when Open Educational Resources are readily shared by many countries and higher education institutions.”

The global nature of OER is integral to their quality and value. OER that allow adaptation, derivation, and redistribution encourage global activity like translation, transcontinental collaboration, and more. If OER produced from the American Graduation Initiative are licensed to allow these freedoms, U.S. college courses become global, thereby increasing their quality and value.

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Submit a Proposal for Writing Spaces

Jane Park, March 2nd, 2009

The transition from high school to college can be tough, especially when it comes to writing. Most first year college students are required to take introductory classes on writing, where they purchase mandatory writing textbooks at exorbitant prices, only to crack ‘em open once before delegating them to dusty corners of dorm rooms.

Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing is a new initiative that aims to offer an alternative to this situation. From their about page:

Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing is a new book series containing peer-reviewed collections of essays–all composed by teachers for students–with each volume freely available for download under a Creative Commons license. The Writing Spaces’ mission is to build a library of quality open access texts for the writing classroom as an alternative to costly textbooks.

Each series collection will contain engaging essays from different writing teachers in the field and will explore important topics about writing in a manner and style accessible both to teachers and students. While the first volume will focus on instructional texts for first year composition, future editions may feature texts for writing in the disciplines and professional writing classrooms. Additionally, each collection will be supplemented by classroom activities and exercises which illustrate and implement the ideas discussed by the authors.

Because the essays are Creative Commons licensed, PDF electronic versions of each series edition and each individual essay can be downloaded from this website. Teachers can freely share these texts with other teachers or prepare printed course packs without need for copyright clearance. For those who would like professionally printed copies for their classes, printed versions of each series edition will be available for purchase through Parlor Press.

Furthermore, Writing Spaces puts each essay through a peer-review process, and all authors retain copyright for their vetted work via whichever Creative Commons license they choose. Though the default license is CC BY-NC-ND, authors can choose to publish their essay via a license better suited to educational needs, such as CC BY, which allows the necessary permissions to fully share a work online via revision, remix, and redistribution. Read more and submit a proposal! The deadline is April 10, 2009, and accepted proposals will be fleshed out (by you) into full essays to be published in January of next year.

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2008 Sparky Award Winners

Jane Park, February 3rd, 2009

The winners of last year’s Sparky Awards are now officially up online (see today’s press release). The Sparky Awards is “a contest organized by SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and adopted by campuses nationwide that calls on entrants to creatively illustrate in a short video the value of sharing ideas.” The student winners were announced on January 24th in a public screening in Denver. The theme for 2008 was “MindMashup: The Value of Information Sharing”, and all four winning teams’ videos do a great job of expressing this value in the internet age via online videos, all CC licensed.

My personal favorite, and the grand prize winner, is:

To Infinity and Beyond
by Danaya Panya, Sebastian Rivera, Hemanth Sirandas, Uriel Rotstein, and Jaymeni Patel, University of Illinois at Chicago Honors College

Coincidentally, or fittingly, the winning video was the only video licensed under the attribution-only license (CC BY), the most open license encouraged for open educational resources (since you can remix it with most anything as long as you credit the original creators—what the Sparky Awards are all about!). “To Infinity and Beyond” also had the most student collaborators, demonstrating the value of teamwork and collaboration—an integral component of effective information sharing.

The first and second runners up are also very compelling (and dare I say funny). Licensed CC BY-NC-SA, they are available for you to remix with similarly licensed works:
How to Make Things Easier by Taejin Kim, Savannah College of Art and Design (CC BY-NC-SA)
Brighter by Christopher Wetzel, Ohio Northern University (CC BY NC-SA)

The fourth video, GrowUp, received the Special Merit Award and is licensed CC BY-NC-ND (ironically, you can’t mash this one up!) by Cécile Iran, Laurie Glassmann, Christophe Zidler, and Aldric de Villartay (University of Versailles-Saint Quentin, France)

Do check them all out on your lunch breaks; they are only two minutes or less! Perfect for internet age attention spans.

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