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Faculty Hold the Keys to Lower Textbook Costs—But Do They Care?

At the moment, costs don’t seem to factor into the decision whether or not to assign a textbook. But when there is such a great demand on higher education institutions to reduce their costs, perhaps it is time for alternatives to be found. Photo by Logan Ingalls.

Do faculty care about the costs of textbooks and other learning materials? I spoke to a faculty member recently, off the record, and asked him questions about how faculty select textbooks for their courses and how much affordability plays into that decision. Do you know what he said? He very unambiguously stated that textbook costs have nothing to do with him and they play no part in his textbook adoption/selection process. Did I mention the school at which he teaches is a public institution, is located in a city, and serves historically under-represented students?

There is a battle waging out there. Students want to pay less for higher education. Schools need to cover the cost of running a school. So students shop around for universities that have the right price point in terms of tuition, but what about fees for important materials such as textbooks? Faculty might not have a direct impact on what courses cost, but often, they do hold the keys to choosing learning materials for the subjects they teach.

So, why does textbook affordability matter so much?

One, the textbooks selected for coursework often overburden students’ budgets and increase risk of attrition. Students see the tuition coming (well, in most cases), but they are not financially prepared for the cost of textbooks. So learning materials get dumped on the (already full) Visa or Mastercard. And while financial aid technically covers book costs, by the time students get the funds (or figure out how they work), classes are usually already in full swing and students need to be reading chapter 4 (but instead are considering Chapter 11).

Two, and if you are into online, blended or other interactive learning trends, this reason should be up your alley. I have this theory that continuing education, distance/online and other ‘new-traditional’ students might be a better match for interactive learning materials than your 18-21, campus-centric set (and I know I am not the only one who thinks that). New-traditional students can tip the scales of adoption in terms of new media such as high quality, low cost digital materials. In fact, in the last online course I took, all of the materials were digital (and free).

One of the toughest parts about being involved with online, continuing education, and other new-traditional student populations is the lack of publicly available research on how these students learn. For example, what kinds of learning materials work best? Though the new-traditional student population tends to be older, is often seeking a less campus-centric education, and may not be as interested in social learning experiences, there is some logic to the theory that new-traditional students might be more likely to engage in alternative learning materials.

The 18-21 year old, campus-based students seem to be saying with their wallets, ‘We like physical textbooks better.’ But given the fact that online and hybrid students may be more familiar with web-based learning processes, perhaps this group is ideal to test and determine if e-books and other digital learning materials serve them better than hard copy texts. Someone’s likely already done it.

We hear about reasons why students in general are not going digital with textbooks…Not all textbooks have a digital version available, even millenials still grew up with physical texts in the classroom, you can’t sell back e-books, and so on. Basically, it is easier to find your books all in one place, such as a discount book e-tailer, highlight the books as needed, and sell them back to that same online bookstore to recoup some of your costs.

Further, some of the larger publishers have highly interactive supplemental materials, particularly in the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and language, which make buying the new edition of a textbook ‘worth it’ in terms of a richer learning experience. Many used texts do not come with the key code or user names and passwords to access these interactive online platforms.

In the end, faculty and administrators best serve their students by giving them options. Choices, such as texts that are available in various formats and price points, are really what the students want. Faculty can research which textbooks are working best at peer institutions and follow technology initiatives like the Open Educational Resource movement (where online texts can often be downloaded free of cost). There is an expectation that faculty are performing their due diligence by looking for the highest quality, most affordable texts that match their discipline, teaching style, and student population. And according to the textbook information provision sec. 133 of HEOA (the Higher Education Opportunity Act)[1], faculty, along with other key stakeholders, are “encourage(d)” to “work together to identify ways to decrease the cost of college textbooks and supplemental materials for students while supporting the academic freedom of faculty members to select high quality course materials for students,” effective July 1, 2010. While the provision puts most of the onus on publishers and institutions, faculty wield much of the power to make a difference by selecting texts based on content and affordability (rather than assigning books simply because they have been assigned for decades).

Researching texts and online learning materials to determine which are high quality and affordable has been historically challenging. The information is disparate. But new sites are popping up to help overcome these obstacles. One such aggregator of this information is a free web resource called the Akademos Textbook Adoption Tool [2]. The site aims to make it easier for faculty to search, discover, compare and adopt texts. The tool helps faculty get out of their comfort zone and view what other faculty are using—faculty can see which schools have adopted which books and review user-generated faculty reviews about which materials they use in their coursework and how these texts are performing. By using faculty peer ratings as a key measure of quality, the site is helping good college textbooks, which might not otherwise be seen, rise to the top.

Now that it is getting easier to find texts that best fit both teacher and student, will faculty transition to high quality texts that are more affordable? Do you think new-traditional students are more likely to tip the scales in favor of digital when it comes to e-textbooks? Do online students benefit more in terms of learning outcomes from using digital texts that parallel their online course delivery experiences? How can we continue to encourage faculty to give students more alternatives in types and sources of textbooks and learning materials?

As usual, more questions than answers. I believe faculty truly care about these issues. But the only way to know is to hear it from them en masse and to watch them transform the way in which texts are selected in the future.

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