Disappearing Ink, Textbook Affordability, and Ownership

Long before an upstart Harry headed to Hogwarts, Sparrowhawk went to the School of Roke in Ursula K. Leguin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. As part of his schooling, Sparrowhawk:

was sent with seven other boys across Roke Island to the farthest north-most cape, where stands the Isolate Tower. There by himself lived the Master Namer, who was called by a name that had no meaning in any language, Kurremkarmerruk. No farm or dwelling lay within miles of the tower. Grim it stood above the northern cliffs, grey were the clouds over the seas of winter, endless the lists and ranks and rounds of names that the Namer’s eight pupils must learn. Amongst them in the tower’s high room Kurremkarmerruk sat on the high seat, writing down lists of names that must be learned before the ink faded at midnight leaving the parchment blank again.

I find it deeply unsettling that publishers, startups, and college and university bookstores have turned to “disappearing ink” as the core of their textbook affordability strategies. Whether we’re talking about textbook buy back programs, textbook rental programs, relying on textbooks from the library’s collection, subscribing to ebook services, or even borrowing textbooks from friends, each and everyone of these approaches to improving textbook affordability does so by stripping students of their core educational resources at the end of term (or sooner).

I’ve written about the disappearing ink problem before in the narrow context of adaptive educational systems, but as I’ve pondered Sparrowhawk’s plight I’ve come to understand that this problem of students losing access to their core educational resources (1) is not new to the world of digital educational materials, (2) is propagated by publishers in almost all of their digital content and not just in their adaptive platforms, and (3) is something that our institutions are actually promoting through their various textbook affordability programs.

(I leave it as an exercise to the reader to ponder the many messages our institutions send when they tell students they only need to keep the textbooks from their “important classes.”)

Over the last several weeks this has led me to think about a benefit of open educational resources I had probably under-appreciated before. When the core instructional materials for courses are open educational resources (OER), we can provide more than free and open access to course materials – we can provide free copies of course materials to students. In a world where links break, services get retired, and organizations change business models, we should be doing more than providing students with free and unfettered access to OER – we should also be offering them easy-to-download and easy-to-use copies of OER. Copies they can own, and keep forever.

As it rattled around inside my tiny brain, the simple thought that “students should own their learning content” jarred another thought loose. If students can own their learning content, why can’t they own the history of their interactions with that content? In other words, why can’t they own a copy of the raw analytics data generated as they used that learning content? There are no technical or legal reasons students cannot own a copy of these data, only stupid, kludgey, protectionist, “business model” reasons. Among the myriad reasons this would be A Good Idea, if students had access to their own learning data the potential for an explosion of “personal learning analytics” tools would be incredible.

I’m increasingly persuaded that to truly empower learners and learning, we need to shift away from the culture of leasing content and hoarding data to a culture where learners are easily able to own copies of their learning content and learning data. It’s not enough for them to have free and unfettered access, we must enable students to own their own personal copies of them. Ownership matters, desperately.

Look to hear a lot more from me on the topic of “learners owning their learning content and learning data” as the year progresses.

PS. Maybe these are thoughts you’ve already had before. Terrific! Would you leave a link in the comments so I can read your thinking about issues of student ownership of learning content and learning data? I’m far less interested in being “first” to have the idea than I am interested in implementing these ideas in ways that benefit students.

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  • Cable Green

    Agree 100%. These points re-emphasize the necessity of open licensing on educational resources. The open licnese gives all learners both (a) free and unfettered access to resources and (b) the legal right to make copies (one of the specific rights the open license grants to learners).

  • Librarian Rue

    This really made me think about my college bookstores practices. I still have textbooks I use as ‘reference’ for subjects I’m otherwise never going to formally study again (‘Intro to Chem’ for example). Also ways to extract ebook reading analytics from open-source eReader software… hmmm.

  • http://www.cali.org John Mayer

    If learning is the “transfer of knowledge”, then DRM or limited access prevents that transfer and results in failure of the educational goals.

    Such a simple thought – so hard to get across to faculty who assign the materials. Traditional print books = ownership and so are the old solution that is broken in the digital realm, but the audience has moved on.