Nicole Allen

CC Talks With: Student PIRGs’ Nicole Allen: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, October 14th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. Nicole Allen is the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) Campaign Director for Make Textbooks Affordable. In our interview, Nicole discussed the Student PIRGs approach to advocacy and education with regard to open textbooks, their latest report on college textbook affordability, and the necessary role of CC and related groups to raise awareness about open licensing in the academic community.

Can you briefly describe the history of your involvement in Student PIRGs and the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign?

Nicole Allen / CC BY

As a lifelong environmental activist, I originally got involved with the PIRGs in college on a campaign to stop water pollution. But I was compelled to make higher education advocacy my career after Congress cut $12 billion federal student aid to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy during my senior year. I first worked as an organizer with WashPIRG (the “PIRG” in Washington state), and after passing a state law mandating textbook price disclosure, I took over as head of the Student PIRGs’ Make Textbooks Affordable campaign in 2007. Since then, I have worked with students across the country to run the campaign and conducted research and advocacy at the federal level (including work on legislation that reversed the cuts to student aid!).

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) passed in 2008, and a provision relating to textbook affordability and access to pricing information recently went into effect. Furthermore, bills supporting the development of open textbooks have been introduced in both the House and Senate. What would you say are the primary characteristics of an open textbook? How does the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign relate to open education?

We’re excited how rapidly open textbooks are gaining momentum, and the HEOA price disclosure law will help accelerate the pace. When we talk about open textbooks, we mean college texts that have been published online under an open license that allows free digital access, low-cost printing and customization by instructors. In most ways, open textbooks are quite similar to the texts seen on bookshelves today – they have a table of contents, exercises, and they’re written by expert authors. In most cases, they even can be printed to look exactly like any other textbook. The big difference is the open license, which enables a wide variety of affordable textbook formats, including free web-based versions, printable PDFs, and printed and bound hard copies for $20-40 (traditional textbooks usually cost $100-200!). Increasingly, more innovative formats such as audio and e-reader versions are becoming available. Another notable difference is that open textbooks can be customized. Instructors can remove the chapters they don’t plan to cover, or they can add in other materials, homework questions or annotations.

Our goal is to get more open textbooks adopted in place of expensive traditional textbooks, so we think of ourselves as part of the “transition team” for open education. We’re getting more professors to use OER as textbooks, the format they feel most comfortable with, which will pave the way for future exploration of more innovative forms of open course materials. So far, it’s been going well. Since 2008, we’ve generated more than 2,500 signatures on a faculty Statement of Intent to consider using open textbooks and more than 500 news stories citing open textbooks as a potential solution. Early this year, we launched a student marketing force consisting of hundreds of grassroots activists on a mission to promote the top open textbooks directly to professors. Already, at least 50 professors we’ve contacted have switched to open textbooks, and we hope to continue this trend throughout the rest of the school year.

The textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge offers free online access to textbooks under a Creative Commons license, and charges a modest amount for printed copies and supplemental materials. What are some things to consider to ensure the sustainability of such new publishing models? What are some of the primary benefits for professors and students in using open textbooks?

Our experience in the field has been that many professors are concerned that students fall behind on reading and homework because they haven’t purchased the text (it’s true – our recent study found that about 10% of any given class hasn’t bought the book). Furthermore, professors are frustrated that publishers unnecessarily revise textbooks to undermine used book sales, creating extra work to keep syllabi and homework questions up to date. Open textbooks offer relief from both of these problems, because the text is accessible free online or at a low-cost in print, and it always remains open even if a new edition comes out. Open textbooks also offer the increasingly attractive benefit of customization, so that instructors can tailor the text to their class.

The benefits for students are obvious. Our latest report, A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability, found that using open textbooks could reduce costs 80% – that’s $184 per year, compared to the current average of $900!  But cost isn’t the only advantage. In our survey, student preferences were split 75% for print and 25% for digital, and two out of five said they’d be comfortable using both. Students listed readability, convenience and cost as their top factors in choosing a format, although there was no consensus on which format represented these qualities best. Given such variance in student preferences, open textbooks are a far more effective solution than conventional options like rentals and e-books, since students can choose from a wide variety of affordable options.

This raises an important question: if open textbooks are free online, why would students buy anything at all?  Actually, our research shows that students are willing to purchase formats they value even in the presence of a free alternative: more than half of the students we surveyed said they would rather buy a reasonably priced print copy than use the book free online. Student spending on optional products could be the foundation of sustainable models, such as the model used by Flat World Knowledge.

College professors want to use the best textbook available, regardless of price. The Making Textbooks Affordable campaign supports the adoption and use of open textbooks, and encourages faculty to sign a statement indicating their intent “to include open textbooks in their search for the most appropriate course materials, and declare declare their preference to adopt an open textbook in place of an expensive, commercial textbook, if the open textbook is the best option.” What can the OER community do to make it easier for faculty to discover and adopt open textbooks? How do we continue to address the issue of quality?

Open textbooks are available for dozens of common college subjects, but the challenge is making professors aware of them. Despite nearly universal willingness to consider more affordable options, we’ve found that instructors typically hear about textbooks through publisher marketing efforts, not by seeking books out themselves. Therefore, simply posting open textbooks online is not enough; they need active promotion. We encourage the rest of the open education community to join our efforts to get the word out to professors.

As for quality, I think the issue is different for open textbooks than other OER. Quality is inherently subjective, so it is challenging to establish on a large scale. However, there is already a notion of what is “high quality” for traditional texts, so it’s less abstract for open textbooks. Since most of today’s professors will use traditional standards, creating high quality textbooks is a matter of developing models that can emulate (and hopefully improve upon) the outcomes of traditional peer review and classroom testing. Great examples are Flat World Knowledge, which follows the standard publishing process to the letter, and Writing Spaces, which uses a peer review system similar to scholarly journals. Likewise, demonstrating quality is a matter of vetting books with respect to traditional textbooks through institutions, organizations and adopters. For example, both College Open Textbooks and our own Open Textbook Catalog offer editorial reviews of open textbooks. Traditional concepts like publisher branding and author reputation are important too.

How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the open textbook and open education? How can CC help?

Open licensing is the essence OER. It gives authors the confidence to grant worldwide access to their works while still reserving some of their rights. It enables instructors to customize and expand OER to better meet student needs. And it allows students to choose from a wide range of affordable textbook formats. We are grateful to Creative Commons for everything it has done already to create, promote and defend open licenses.

Sharing and customizing course materials (legally) is a foreign concept in academe. We can gloss over the details in the short term by emphasizing affordability, but a deeper understanding of open licensing will be necessary to broaden the use of OER beyond open textbooks. Therefore, we encourage CC to expand its educational and awareness efforts in the academic community, particularly among faculty.

Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, predictions?

I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of OER’s potential to transform teaching and learning. Although the pedagogical benefits are virtually limitless, we come from the consumer perspective. To us, OER means choice, and the ideal learning environment is one where students can take part in shaping their own experience as the “consumers” of higher education.

As for the future, I think the next few years are going to be a turning point. On one hand, we have the growing momentum of open textbooks and other OER. On the other, we have the traditional publishing industry, which has begun to diversify its offerings to include e-books, e-readers and even programs that imitate OER in a non-open environment like DynamicBooks and Create. It is imperative that the open education community help open textbooks gain a foothold before the market settles for less effective solutions. To do that, we need to call on government, foundations and institutions to fund the supply-side, and we need to fuel demand by actively promoting open textbook adoption.


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