The No Textbook Degree

I’ve been thinking about what’s next for OER… With the current set of MOOCs – which aren’t even open – grabbing attention away from the real movement, we need an exciting idea to get behind. Something that can inspire another decade of work across the nation and around the world. (When was the last time you heard about a new OpenCourseWare initiative launching in the US? When was the last time you personally thought of OCW as being really innovative?) We need something that can capture the imagination, something that can inspire both faculty and institutional leaders, something that will bring another 100 US post-secondary schools into the open education movement. Most of all, we need something that will significantly bless the lives of millions of students, providing them access to educational opportunities that can radically transform their lives for good.

A recent Forbes article said, “in the case of low-tuition institutions (particularly community colleges), the cost of textbooks can even be in excess of the tuition and fees students pay.” Pondering the magnitude of this content tax on students, digging around in some community college program descriptions, and thinking about relevant, high-quality OER collections like those at Saylor, the Open Course Library, Project Kaleidoscope, and Flat World Knowledge, something has become very clear to me. There is currently a sufficient amount of high quality OER in the general education, business, and computer science areas that a community college could assemble a fully OER-based Associates Degree in either Business or CS from these materials if it had the institutional will and leadership to do so.

Consequently, the Fall 2014 semester will be the first one for which community colleges market “no textbook degrees.”

The “no textbook degree” – a degree where the materials formally listed on course syllabi are OER instead of traditional textbooks – cuts the cost of a community college degree in half. Imagine the competitive advantage for a school that can market a degree at 50% the cost of neighboring programs. Imagine the ease with which neighboring programs can make the same move, since it’s all based on OER.

By 2019, every community college in the country will have moved to no textbook degrees in business and computer science out of sheer competitive necessity. Other degree programs will follow. If Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation is to be believed, these OER will work their way up from the community colleges into the classrooms at public and eventually private universities.

An entire marketplace will spring up out of nowhere – in the same way that RedHat, IBM, and others provide services and support around open source software, new entities will provide service and support for institutions adopting OER and the “no textbook degree” model. Of course, the technically savvy will continue to adopt OER on their own, support themselves, and run Linux on their desktops.*

And finally, commercial textbook publishers will, for the first time, actually and acutely feel the impact of OER on their finances. By 2020, US students alone will have saved well over $1B.

Alan Kay famously said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I think that means it’s up to me and you to make the “no textbook degree” happen. Let’s stop allowing the big name schools who cater to the wealthiest and brightest students to dictate the terms of the open education discourse in the public mind and public media (e.g., students who already have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in a course on Artificial Intelligence at Udacity). Let’s reclaim the open education discourse and make it about saving normal people money and increasing the academic success, graduation rates, and employment potential of normal people. We can do this.

* (Parenthetically, because of the continued uncertainty around the meaning of NC, the support marketplace will refuse to support NC licensed content. Thus, adoption and use of NC-licensed content will be confined to the DIY-ers among faculty, unless the creator of the NC licensed content is also a support provider. By 2017 the overwhelming majority of “casual creators” of OER that previously used the NC term will drop it from their licenses as they realize that NC condemns their content to obscurity due to lack of support.)

4 thoughts on “The No Textbook Degree”

  1. Great post, very inspiring.  I love the entire concept of “disruptive innovation”, and I thoroughly agree with you that education needs it.  One advantage OER will have is in the developing world too – the price of e-readers/tablets/netbooks is dropping fast enough that some developing countries are beginning to supply them for their students.  And the nature of open licences encourages translations and localisations, and gets rid of the cost barrier too.  Massive market opportunity right there.  Have subscribed to your RSS feed and look forward to reading more 🙂

  2. I am fascinated by the idea of the open textbook, but I must confess: I had very few textbooks in college. Perhaps it was because I attended an Ivy League college and studied mainly in the Humanities, or perhaps it was a decision on the part of the professors to rely heavily on primary sources. Rather than have one huge textbook, most of my courses offered between 8 and 12 “normal” books, either works of history, theory, or fiction, as well as a “course pack” (photocopied readers) with the essays and sample texts assembled by the professor. These provided a sort of “textbook,” but could not be sold as such outside the university. 

    I do recall my frustration with those very few courses (science and mathematical) which required gargantuan textbooks. They were enormous, and of course we always had to have the latest edition, making it nearly impossible to buy them used. This is of course where the strength of such “texts” comes in. I could even see enterprising persons making iBooks that provide “interactive” texts, though I confess to my love of paper copies. I have started my first course and find myself printing out every text linked to, so that I can mark it, take notes, “own it.” In essence, I am creating my own “course pack” reader. I wish there had been an option to order one ready-made, and bound. When I have completed all the printing, I may have it bound myself. Nevertheless, the essays linked to are largely of a similar quality to those I read at Yale (at least the readings from these first few courses I’ve perused). I would like to see a little more reliance on primary sources. I appreciate that they must be freely available, or at least cheaply, and online so that those without the possibility of purchasing can still participate. I do think that more recent works could be included, at least those that are readily available in local libraries, or can be purchased cheaply…. but I have digressed more than is necessary. For those classes that are suited to having “textbooks,” this is a grand thing, and I am excited to see online and open education developing.

  3. Jason is right, for a lot of social science and humanities courses, the battle is really for Open Access publications – almost all my undergrad, and post-grad courses have been based on article collections (and collections of chapters from books, which are even harder to get OA). Sometimes we had a professor that linked to all the articles through the university library, which the university already paid lots of money for, and we didn’t need to pay anything – other times we had to pay 150$ for a reading package…

    And of course many people still want stuff on paper – but I think as devices become better both in screen quality, ability to markup etc (and ideally more stuff is published as flexible formats rather than PDFs, which is almost always the case for OA journal articles), that will change.

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