Tuesday, June 14, 2011

OER infographic and accuracy of OER data

The Atlantic recently published a piece which included an interesting infographic that compared Open Source Textbooks to other textbook options. As with much of the media on open source textbooks these days, there is a fair amount of incorrect data being bandied about, which leads to some false conclusions about the benefits. Such items make for good teachable moments, though.

If you scroll past the infographic, you will find among the comments one from our government relation's director, Rich Hershman. Rich and I are both proponents of the open source movement, and together crafted a policy position for our Association's board. That position, in support of the OER/open textbook movement was adopted nearly three years ago and remains in effect. That aside, there is room for constructive criticism of the open textbook movement and a number of the claims used relative to the movement. I think Rich's comments do a great job of capturing some of these perspectives.

Here are Rich's comments from the posting:

While this is an interesting graphic, I would question some of the facts it displays. The National Association of College Stores has been tracking the cost of textbooks and other course materials for years, and our data and that of others in some aspects are quite different.:

1.) According to actual student surveys, the average full time student spends between $600-$700 annually on course materials , not $900. This $600 to $700 includes purchasing new books, used books, rental, and ebooks. It does not factor in financial aid, tax credits, nor if students sell their textbooks back, all of which would further reduce the net costs -in some cases significantly. Student spending on college textbooks has actually been declining in recent years, according to at least two recent national surveys of students.

2.) The $184 average cost estimate of open source textbooks does not factor in the total costs of the content , since the open source textbook community now advocates for and and in some cases receives federal, state, and institutional subsidies (beyond student fees) in order to develop, update, maintain, and support such textbooks. Therefore, some of the costs of open source textbooks would be hidden from students, though they likely would pay for some of these costs indirectly. Also depending on how a fee would be established, if it was a mandatory school-wide fee as some have advocated, students from low-cost content subjects, like literature, would be forced to subsidize students taking higher cost science and math courses.

3.) Switching to open source textbooks would cost states and localities in states like California, Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Illinois hundreds of millions in lost sales tax revenue. This would likely be offset with further cuts to education funding, and result in higher tuition and fees. It would also reduce income tax and eliminate thousands of jobs and employment opportunities for students and recent graduates.

4.) The average price of new course materials, including textbooks, at colleges and universities in 2009-2010 was $62, not $171. Implying that the average cost of all new textbooks actually used in schools is $171 greatly misrepresents the potential savings as you look beyond single title examples and attempt to jump to claims of aggregate savings.

Open source textbooks are a valuable and an important development in the marketplace for courses materials. There are many reasons why institutions should support the development and experimentation of open source textbooks for academic reasons separate from the perceived cost-savings arguments. There are opportunities to make course materials more affordable through the adoption and use of open textbooks. However, the case for open source textbooks from an affordability perspective should be made with a complete understanding of all the direct and indirect costs and benefits to students. This info-graphic, cool as it, seems to fall short of this test.

It would be great to see the infographic updated with correct information, as such graphics can be useful tools for communicating complex data. OER can have a positive effect on education. However, if we fail to measure the effects accurately, we may come to false conclusions and reap some unintended consequences.

As one example, most college stores are independent non-profit businesses today, and even if they are part of one of the contract management chains, they return revenue or provide other services to the academic institution in most cases. Most revenue from course materials goes to support financial aid or student services. While improving textbook affordability via open source textbooks, educational affordabilty can also be affected, and we are hearing more anecdotal examples of this happening on campuses.

I believe that part of Rich's point is that in addition to the inaccuracies in the infographic, there is a larger set of economic implications here connected to textbooks and textbok affordability. The OER movement needs better and more accurate data on "total cost of ownership" at the student, institutional, governmental, and national levels. This would enable us to better support OER initiatives and find models that are true wins for students. A deeper conversation and investigation of the true costs associated with OER should occur -- otherwise we risk taking a positive innovation and turning it into a shell game with educational affordability at stake.

Short of this type of investigation, why not just take the billions of dollars going into developing open access textbooks and give it to the current textbook publishers to make their content free for the students with greatest need? Or use it to subsidize the top 20 percent of titles from publishers, or the top X percent of most widely used textbooks, making the current high quality products free to students rather spending money to reinvent an industry that already exists? Sure, this would have unintended consequences as well, but we might start with a higher bar and have an immediate affordabilty impact across the widest possible range of students.

My comment here is meant to be somewhat flippant or extreme -- the point being that we cannot throw money at OER and just expect that it will produce high quality, affordable results. There are reasons to support OER and the OER movement beyond affordability. The movement would be well served to make more of those arguments, and fact-check some of their current assumptions related to affordability.

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