Textbooks, OER, and the Need for Open Pedagogy

I was recently interviewed for an article in the Washington Post about textbook publishing, digital content, and inclusive access. This piece is adapted from the notes I prepared for that interview.

Textbooks are a social justice issue. The cost of textbooks has increased over 1000% in the last 40 years (3 times the rate of inflation). Over a shorter frame of 10-20 years we’ve seen other non-academic books actually go down in price while textbook prices have continued to go up.

This steady rise in cost is driven by the fact that students are being required to buy these books. And commercial textbook companies are adding insult to injury by bundling textbooks with other (often digital) course materials so that the cost of a single “textbook” can be as much as $400 or more. In many classes, the stuff that’s bundled with the textbook goes unused.

When I was an undergraduate student in the 1990s, I would budget around $250 each semester for all my books. Now, students find themselves commonly paying more than that for a single book.

The push toward Open Educational Resources is fueled, at least in part, by the steady rise in textbook costs. And there is a lot of good intentions behind the OER movement. But, increasingly, commercial textbook companies are confusing the movement by pushing high-cost digital alternatives to textbooks. Students are offered limited licenses to these books and so they are, in a sense, only renting access to a digital file that is much less flexible than a print book.

Many of these supposed OER initiatives are framed in terms of access. Because they appear to lower the cost for individual classes. But with these models students are paying less and also getting less, because they have only limited access to the material. Either they get access for a limited period, they get the material in a proprietary format, or they have to use restrictive platforms to engage the material.

And the textbook companies are also banking on the fact that digital books can’t be resold. But a student’s right to resell their own property is part of what they are buying when they buy a physical book.

For all of these reasons, I find the increasing use of the phrase “inclusive access” by textbook publishers incredibly problematic. The phrase is marketing spin designed to make institutions think signing profit-driven deals with massive corporate publishers is actually in the best interest of students, when it usually (almost always) isn't. There is very little that is inclusive or accessible about the materials being marketed like this. According to Inside Higher Ed., “The 'inclusive' aspect of the model means that every student has the same materials on the first day of class, with the charge included as part of their tuition.” As the story goes, publishers can charge less, because students have to opt out, and only 2% choose to. But the need to bundle course materials with tuition points to a larger problem: why are students often unwilling to buy these course materials in the first place?

Textbooks are also a pedagogical issue. I would like to shift the conversation about textbooks more toward choice, so the question for teachers becomes not just how much will the required texts for a class cost, but is it necessary that I require specific materials at all? Why would I choose these texts before even meeting the students and understanding their needs? Is there a better way to allow students multiple points of entry to a course? Can I use free online readings instead? Recommended print books? And only require students buy materials those students see as having value beyond a single semester?

I also think it’s important for teachers to realize that students have to make incredibly difficult decisions around the economics of college. For example, students should never have to decide between buying a textbook for a class or eating. But they often do. This means when educators design courses or academic programs, we have to start from a place of trusting students to make important decisions about their own education. And we have to start from a place of empathy.

What I’m most interested in is the shift toward freely available open educational resources. And especially ones that students have a hand in creating. An OER is not just a (hopefully) free resource but also an opportunity. Open pedagogy pushes, in fact, on the very notion of static "resources" in favor of tools that emphasize student contribution and dialogue. In their chapter from A Guide to Making Open Textbooks With Students, Robin DeRosa and Rajiv Jhangiani write, “Knowledge consumption and knowledge creation are not separate but parallel processes, as knowledge is co-constructed, contextualized, cumulative, iterative, and recursive.” (See more examples at their Open Pedagogy Notebook.)

As I remarked on Twitter, the way forward is more agency for teachers and students and fewer back-alley deals with corporate publishers. I'm inspired by projects that push hard against the idea of knowledge as static and hierarchical—like the Equality Archive from Shelly Eversley and a collective of over 25 feminist authors, artists, and teachers. And I'm inspired by projects that invite a much larger audience into their continued creation, like the Open Music Theory interactive “textbook” published free and open-source by Kris Shaffer and others.

At University of Mary Washington, our Domain of One’s Own program gives students a domain name and space on the Web where they can develop their own digital identity and contribute to knowledge in their field. There is so much knowledge openly available on the Web. And having students work with OER gives them opportunities to think critically about that information and about who controls what is “true” in a given discipline. Ultimately, I want education to make space for students to be creators of knowledge not just consumers of it. Traditional textbooks become resources, in this kind of approach, rather than doctrine. And, no matter how difficult it's become, the Web has to be a place of constant and active interrogation of what and how we know.

Our work at UMW is less about thinking through how students consume content on the Web and more about how they can be inspired to build and rebuild the Web. My work in faculty development has always been focused on helping teachers think beyond content—to imagine ways for students to co-construct their own educations.

The emphasis of open pedagogy can't be on how we copyright, license, and share content. That can be one tiny piece, but it's a mostly metaphorical one, and an offshoot of the deeper and more necessary social justice work: seeing students as full humans, as agents, not customers. The cost of textbooks needs to be addressed, especially when students increasingly face basic needs insecurity—but through a reconsideration of when and how we use textbooks altogether, rather than by simply changing how they are monetized. In this, open pedagogy is the thing.