Just how inclusive are “inclusive access” e-textbook programs?

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).

Open or Closed by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0), retrieved from

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.”

Annotated screenshot of the references in a brochure for Pearson’s digital delivery model

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.

10 thoughts on “Just how inclusive are “inclusive access” e-textbook programs?

  • Thanks for taking on inclusive access (or “all inclusive access” as it is sometimes described. I agree with your points about the disadvantages for students, though in my conversations with the art history department, where good OER is scarce, a digital version of a 25 pound intro textbook at a savings of over $100 to each student (many of whom don’t buy the current print book to the dismay of faculty) seemed like a win despite the disadvantages.

    I am not quite sure what to say to faculty when they propose that all inclusive access is their preferred option – especially when they might be reading this sort of thing promoting the idea (see my comment):

    My current thinking is that while there are distinct disadvantages to inclusive access for students – and you effectively identify them (which should help all of us advocates when we discuss it with our faculty colleagues) – is that I can’t expect all of our faculty to immediately make the jump from their expensive commercial textbook to OER (or even some open and some licensed library content). Given that inclusive access is still somewhere under the textbook affordability umbrella – not 5Rs open by an stretch of the imagination – but a step towards affordability – my perspective is to take that as a positive step forward. That faculty member is not there yet, but I can see he or she has affordability on their mind. They see this as a way to help students.

    I can see it as a start. Perhaps next year they will want to move even further ahead in the direction of adopting more open sources. And hopefully I and my library colleagues and our faculty champions for openness can help share the messages that could further convince the adopters of inclusive access options that they can do even more to help our students.

    Thanks, Steven

  • Totally agreed. Another point is that the discount on “Inclusive Access” from print prices isn’t that great. Good example of “fauxpen!”

  • Great post! When talking about inclusion and accessibility we can’t forget about students with print disabilities. I’ve seen two major accessibility problems with proprietary “inclusive access” models like Texidium.

    First, sometimes the platform isn’t accessible. This is more problematic than a print textbook as there’s workflows for format shifting print content for students with print disabilities. What does an accessible format look like for an online “book” that’s on an inaccessible platform? A whole new accessible website? Also there’s really no excuse for publishers who are building inaccessible web platforms in 2017.

    Second, sometimes the content isn’t fully accessible. Many of the online publisher textbooks I’ve seen don’t have image descriptions, have math content that’s not in MathML (and therefore cannot be read by a screenreader), or have videos that lack captions. Again, there’s really no excuse for publishers producing content on the web that is not accessible.

    A couple of years ago I used to think that publishers might not be aware of accessibility, but now I believe that they don’t care . I believe they don’t care because it cuts into their profits and they are not responsible for the cost of remediating inaccessible platforms and inaccessible content to provide full access to students with print disabilities.

    When we talk about accessibility and open textbooks we usually mean financial accessibility, which is important. It’s also important that we make choices that don’t disable students in our classrooms.

  • Great article, this is such an important topic right now as publishers pivot away from traditional textbooks and to e-books and adaptive learning. This to me underlines the importance of emphasizing the remixing and adapting OERs and finding ways of moving beyond the textbook. I hope we can find new ways of leveraging technologies such as Pressbooks, wikis and interoperability to make OER even more adaptable and usable by instructors.

  • On the back of the book jacket for this blog post, beneath the photo of you in a plaid jacket, should be a testimonial “Brilliant incisive writing backed by data and passion for education.” 😉 I love this:

    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.

    Not to be too heretical, where is the question of the need for these items in the first place? It seems like the textbook is an assumed pillar of a course, because it has been a fixture so long. Not a judgement overall of textbook Good/Bad but is it always necessarily necessary?

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Thank you Alan 🙂

      I think your question is spot on. Inertia and not adequately questioning normative practice is, in my experience, one of the biggest obstacles to Open (and for that matter any kind of innovation). Why lecture? Why hold exams? Why take attendance? And, in my discipline, why (for heaven’s sake!) require students to memorize APA style formatting?

      Faculty are accustomed to teaching without textbooks in specialized areas. But we are equally accustomed to teaching with/around/based on textbooks for lower-level survey courses. Add to that our reliance on ancillary resources. But if you don’t assign multiple-choice questions you really don’t need a question bank.

  • Krystyna

    Perhaps my opinion is simplistic but as an employee of PSE and a parent of a PSE student, I immediately recognized the source of this problem, and I see it as such. With faculty prep time decreasing, full time faculty being replaced by part-time and contract positions, it’s no wonder publishers jumped at the chance to produce digital course materials to take the pressure off the faculty. The business model administration couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pass the cost of this to the student by implementing the e-text programs. It’s really a shame. Given adequate resources (including technical guidance) and time to research and prep, faculty would be so much more capable of providing students with access to rich academic OER content.

    • Julian Prior (@jpodcaster)

      I think this is spot-on Krystyna, particularly in teaching-intensive institutions where faculty are time-impoverished. Inclusive access eTextbook models are an attractive option for pressurised faculty and I’m not sure the (fairly minimal) cost savings for students is particularly high on the list of reasons why they are being adopted. I worry for the future of OER locked inside proprietary publishing platforms as David Wiley put it recently.

  • John Rankley

    Inclusive access is about market control. It’s sold with the candy coating of a low price and first day access. But the publisher strategy is to destroy the secondary market. Noone’s questioning that inclusive access is strictly digital. Why? Because you can’t resell or give away a digital textbook when you are done with the class that uses it. Sadly some universities have sold out and are rewarding the entities that abused the market for 10-20 years with protection from competition with the used book market. Hopefully OER will grow. After all, don’t instructors get paid to publish? How much of the material they would need to put into a custom OER is actually copyrighted? Very little. Unfortunately, this won’t stop the unjustified loss of jobs to those in bookstores and the used book business.

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