Which courses offer affordable textbooks? Who knows?

Mass. higher ed must move to full transparency on cost of class materials

IT SHOULD BE a short story with a happy ending, something like this:

Once upon a time, concerned faculty began utilizing a growing body of free or low-cost instructional materials known as open educational resources (OER), hoping to reduce the number of students who quit classes because they couldn’t afford $300 textbooks. College administrators began coding OER courses so that students could easily identify them when they registered for classes, and everyone on campus lived happily ever after. The end.

Now cue the laugh track – because as we are learning, the real story of how things get done in higher education is a bit more complex.

For years, the Student Advisory Council to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has worked to expand use of open educational resources, the free or lower-cost course materials that have emerged as alternatives to exorbitantly priced textbooks. It’s a priority for student leaders because textbook costs have risen 160 percent since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We’ve made progress, educating faculty and staff and building awareness that OER utilization is, in fact, an equity issue. A disproportionate number of students of color put off buying textbooks they can’t afford, which hampers their performance in class. Conversely, students of color have better course outcomes when OER gets utilized because they have access to their learning materials on day one.

But here is the storyline twist: Only 10 of Massachusetts’ 28 public undergraduate campuses code OER courses so that students can identify classes taught using the free or low-cost materials. Nine of those campuses are community colleges. One is a UMass campus.

What’s the problem? For starters, Massachusetts’ public campuses have no single, automated course management system. And the business of coding courses is a manual, time-intensive practice.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s not just flipping a switch,” says Ceit DeVitto, Bunker Hill Community College’s full-time instructional designer and OER coordinator. She spends her days monitoring courses to make sure they adhere to OER standards. She knows that most faculty fully appreciate the economic strains on Bunker Hill’s low-income students but are often unaware of the breadth of OER resources or unsure of the quality of the materials.

“They’re more familiar with the publishing world,” DeVitto says of the market for standard textbooks. “There’s more of a learning curve with OER; they need to work harder to find the materials.”

That’s not to suggest that faculty are unwilling to learn. However, temporary or part-time adjunct instructors, paid by the course, often cobble together a living by teaching at multiple campuses. Asking them to transform their courses with OER materials is an additional burden, which is why having designated staff to assist can result in critical breakthroughs in instructional practice.

Another barrier to OER implementation and course marking is the powerful publishing industry, worried about losing market share. Last week, the publishing giant Pearson unveiled Pearson+, a new subscription-based app that will give students access to e-texts and study tools – and give the publishing giant a new revenue stream plus access to student cellphone numbers.

With some campuses, publishers negotiate agreements that result in students paying an all-encompassing instructional materials fee, which shields the true cost of individual textbooks. A report by US PIRG found that nationally, while federal law requires that automatic billing offer students discounted pricing on textbooks, “many of the contracts fail to deliver real savings.”

The pathway to broader use of OER may be a combination of consensus-building among faculty and legislative mandates. In Washington State, a lengthy process of faculty and staff surveys and convenings preceded state board approval of a statewide coding policy. But because colleges retained the option to “opt out” of the course marking system, students have led a fight for a legislative mandate.

In Massachusetts, we’re proud to see the Board of Higher Education adopt OER course marking guidelines —  though these are not mandatory at any campus.

Meet the Author
Massachusetts should look at the ongoing efforts in Washington State and in the six states that have already taken action to mandate OER markings in course listings. As students, we’re paying thousands of dollars to earn our credentials. As educational consumers, we have a right to know which courses offer us savings – at every taxpayer-funded public campus.

Jorgo Gushi is a student at Quinsigamond Community College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is chair of the Massachusetts Student Advisory Council and Community Colleges Segmental Advisor to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.