Mar 142014
 
Photo by Ito (CC-BY-2.0)

Photo by Ito (CC-BY-2.0)

Leaders in the Obama Administration, in state governments, and in corporate America have acknowledged the urgency of increasing access to higher education in the United States – particularly through community colleges.  These leaders also recognize the importance of improving completion rates and educational outcomes for those who enroll.

As we come to the close of Open Education Week, it is now time for these leaders to focus attention, energy and resources on the most immediate opportunity to make progress toward these goals while also freeing up billions of dollars that can be redirected toward this progress.  Make textbooks available to students for free or at very low marginal cost.

The Open Textbook Opportunity – Tidewater Community College Case Study

Sound too good to be true?  It’s not, and the forward-looking folks at Tidewater Community College are leading the way.  Students at Tidewater can now save 30% of the cost of a two-year Associate’ Degree of Science in Business Administration because all of the textbooks are published under a Creative Commons Attribution license which gives anyone – students and the school – the rights to freely make copies and adapt these works as long as proper attribution to the author(s) is maintained.

According to Linda Williams at Tidewater, open textbooks have not just been a cost savings but also have improved the quality of the educational experience and have opened up improvements in students’ quality of life.

In one case a student – a veteran – was routinely unable to afford his textbooks until weeks into the semester.  When he enrolled in a Pre-Calculus class for which he could freely download the openly-licensed textbook, it was the first time he’d ever started a class with the required materials in hand.

In another case, a single mother who enrolled in the Business Administration degree program was able to use her savings on textbooks to buy braces for her daughter – an expense she could not have managed without these cost savings.

Why Open Textbooks Now?

Of all of the challenges facing access to education and improved educational outcomes, the problems of textbook affordability, usability, and adaptability are the key barriers that can be readily overcome. The Tidewater case should not be an exception – let’s make it the norm.  Educational materials are moving from print to digital, but currently they are still expensive, subject to extensive restrictive copyright licensing terms, and reside behind a password-protected paywall.  To adapt the famous lines from President Reagan, leaders, use smart policies that promote open educational resources to tear down this wall!

By shifting to high quality OER, educational institutions at both the K-12 and tertiary levels can redirect billions of dollars into improved access and outcomes that currently flow into a textbook production system that is highly inefficient, a system that transfers significant wealth out of the educational sector and into the pockets of shareholders in a handful of publishing firms without corresponding benefits.

To be clear, there are historical reasons for this that predate the Internet.  The Internet is the game-changer, and while these firms currently are part of the problem, they also have the opportunity to become part of the solution.

How? By embracing the production of Open Educational Resources.  These aren’t free to produce or update, but production, adaptation, and quality control can all be done far more efficiently and at significantly lower cost than is currently the case. Just ask the folks at OpenStax College who are publishing top-notch textbooks that are free to download and are available in print for about $30.

Who Will Offer the Next Degree Program Built on Open Educational Resources?

With the pool of high quality, openly licensed textbooks and other educational resources growing every day, what traditional brick-and-mortar educational institution will be next to follow Tidewater’s lead and start using OER to promise students from the beginning that the cost of their textbooks will be free, at very low cost, or covered by the cost of tuition?

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