As is now well documented and understood, unrelenting increases in the prices of university textbooks (typically between 3 and 4 times the rate of inflation) have not been matched by increases in student spending. Whereas the U.S. College Board and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada respectively advise students to budget US$1300 and CA$1000 per year for textbooks and other course materials, data collected by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) show that actual student spending on course materials has dropped to less than half that amount. The result is an increasingly strong relationship between the affordability of course materials and course performance, with a majority of post-secondary students across the continent (from Florida to British Columbia to Massachusetts) having to forgo purchasing required textbooks, and a growing number of others adopting alternative, sub-optimal (and sometimes illegal) methods to obtain required course materials.
Plummeting sales of new hardbound print copies of commercial textbooks (accompanied by precipitous drops in revenue and share price) have, in turn, accelerated the pivot of commercial textbook publishers towards digital delivery models. With no printing or distribution costs, the attractiveness of permanently extinguishing the used book market (where a single copy may be resold six times during the lifecycle of each edition), and the ability to guarantee high and predictable revenue via institutional licensing contracts, it is little wonder (although rather amusing) that the large commercial publishers have sought to repaint themselves as the saviours of those suffering at the hands of their own business model.
In its latest incarnation, digital delivery has been cleverly branded as “inclusive access,” a model wherein every student pays a mandatory course materials fee that represents an arbitrary discount off the (arbitrary) price of a new hardcover textbook (often more than the average student currently spends). In exchange, the students lease digital-only access to their required textbooks within the publisher’s digital delivery platform. In some (but not all) cases, students are given the option to opt-out of this system, usually under restrictive terms that are not always obvious to them, such as by locating, completing, and submitting a form within 10 days. Of course, for students who prefer to work with a print copy (and possibly resell it later to recover some of its cost), the ability to opt out is especially important. Yet, as you might surmise, the publishers have a vested interest in keeping the number of students who may opt-out to a minimum. This is why at institutions like Post University the opt-out terms are more than restrictive; they are punitive, as students who manage to opt-out in time are are informed that “they will not be eligible for an extension on course assignments while they await arrival of their course materials” (which they must purchase elsewhere). Just what you picture when you think of the word “inclusive,” right?
In Canada, the “inclusive access” model has been pioneered by Algonquin College, where the marketing slogan is “100% of the students with 100% of their resources 100% of the time.” This sounds really great until you begin to tally the compromises that are being made on the side of student agency, academic freedom, and textbook format. For example, even if you sidestep the fact that students, far from being “digital natives,” still overwhelmingly prefer print textbooks, you should realize that the argument that “e-Texts are portable and can be used anywhere” is only an advantage if you ignore digital redlining or are confident that every student will perpetually own a portable device that can host an eText. Nonetheless, given the growing interest on the part of university administrators in tackling the problem of exorbitant textbook costs, inclusive access (especially when accompanied with the sweetener of a pilot semester with free textbooks) can come across as a quick (if not terribly easy) fix, one that can reasonably be expected to yield improvements in mean student outcomes (access being the essential ingredient).
Of course, “inclusive access” is not the only viable approach to tackling textbook unaffordability, as steadily growing adoptions of open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER) have mirrored (and possibly accelerated) the commercial publishers’ pivot away from print. Funded by groups as diverse as universities, governments, philanthropic organizations, and professional societies, OERs are resources that empower users with the freedoms to reuse, retain, redistribute, and even revise or remix. They are available in a variety of digital formats (free of cost and free from digital rights management) as well as in print format (at the cost of printing). Crucially, OER broadens access in a way that is actually inclusive. Whereas the commercial publishers’ approach to “inclusive access” continues to pass the burden of cost on to academia’s most vulnerable constituents in order to serve shareholders, the OER approach enhances access and agency in a manner that serves social justice and inspires pedagogical innovation.
According to the NACS, 32% of faculty currently assign OER. The corresponding estimate from the Independent College Bookstore Association is roughly half that amount, at 15%. But even if you prefer to trust the more conservative estimates, it is noteworthy that the commercial publisher Cengage itself predicts that the use of OER as primary course material will triple within five years, a forecast that is reflected by the 33% of faculty (surveyed by the NACS) who believe OER will replace commercial textbooks in general education courses.
What is more, a growing body of research attests to the positive impact of OER adoption on educational outcomes that include exam performance, course enrolment, course persistence, and program completion. In fact, the OER efficacy literature is so compelling that the commercial publishers have begun to attempt to co-opt it. See, for example, this 2016 brochure from Pearson Education that deceptively cites four OER efficacy studies in support of their digital delivery platform (see below for a preview). Of course, this is a deliberate effort to muddy the waters, something that has been compounded by the publishers seeking to import open textbooks (including those that carry a NonCommercial open license) into their paywalled platforms. The strategy thus appears to be “if you can’t beat ‘em, co-opt ‘em.”
But of course faculty are free to assign OER directly (e.g., through open textbook repositories such as those in British Columbia, Ontario, or Minnesota), without their institution forcing its students to lease e-textbooks every semester. Without supporting openwashing. So while there remain courses for which OER are not yet available and open textbooks which are not yet supported with ancillary resources, institutions ought to think very carefully before signing agreements that restrict faculty choice to the textbooks available within a given platform and that impose an opt-out model on students while granting only temporary digital access.
Remember that the true power of open comes not from a resource being free of cost but rather from the freedoms to reuse, retain, redistribute, revise, and remix content. These freedoms empower both students and faculty while widening access and supporting the democratization of education. On the other hand, “inclusive access” programs trade away both free and freedom in exchange for an arbitrary discount and restricted access (not to mention increased surveillance). A sly attempt at defining-by-naming, “inclusive access” programs strip away agency and represent a major step towards the corporatization of higher education. The contrast could hardly be greater.