The Pin that Popped the Textbook Bubble: Open (Notes for my 2015 #sxswedu talk)

At this year’s SXSWEdu I gave a Future15 talk, a 15 minute talk given in a “TED style” format. These are the notes I wrote while preparing for the talk. The talk itself differed from these notes somewhat, including some improvisations, but this will give you a broad sense of the argument.

What is a bubble?

King, Smith, Williams and Van Boening (1993) define a bubble as “trade in high volumes at prices that are considerably at variance with intrinsic values.” Krugman describes a bubble as a situation in which prices appear to be based on implausible or inconsistent views about the future (2013). (wikipedia)

Is the textbook market a bubble?

Before the Internet, educational materials were printed, making them scarce resources. Scarcity was a defining attribute of educational resources. Appropriately, commercial publishers tailored their business models to this core characteristic of their product and the environment.

Since the Internet, educational materials have become digital, making them abundant resources. But rather than adapting their business models to the new truth of their product, publishers have invested significantly in technologies that attempt to make educational materials artificially scarce. DRM technologies frequently used by publishers make it difficult (and illegal, thank you DMCA anti-circumvision provisions) to copy and share digital educational resources. These technologies cripple the Internet’s inherent ability to support the instantaneous and free copying and redistribution of content. (See The Importance of Getting in the Air.) Publisher’s refusal to sell copies of educational materials, now only allowing students to access educational materials as long as they are subscribed, wages a war on private ownership of property. (They’ve also brought this war into the physical realm with lawsuits to deprive students of their first sale rights in printed books). Invisible ink. Contrived “permissions.” (See Disappearing Ink, Textbook Affordability, and Ownership.)

Motivated students are terrific problem solvers. Consequently, some students are finding ways to succeed without buying textbooks. While this is good for students, it is bad for publishers. The major publishers are publicly traded companies with growth and earnings expectations they have to meet. And when the number of units you sell is dropping, the only way to meet revenue goals is to raise prices on the few units you do sell.

Rapidly rising prices provide stronger incentives for students to avoid buying textbooks, so they invent additional clever ways to succeed without buying textbooks, driving sales further down. This, in turn, drives prices even higher. This vicious cycle is a swirling vortex of academic doom.

What should, in the 21st century, be a completely frictionless and painless activity – owning a copy of your required educational materials – has instead become an arms race between billion-dollar multinational corporations and smartphone-wielding teenagers. The time and effort spent by students trying to find ways to get the learning resources they need to succeed is a huge waste. It’s time they’re spending on school, but time they’re not spending learning.

Importantly, only students with a significant degree of digital literacy or those who are part of a sophisticated social network can typically makes this kind of accommodation. First generation students, financially at-risk students, and other traditionally underserved students – those least able to afford to purchase textbooks – are left with very limited choices: go to class unprepared, take fewer classes, indenture themselves by taking on student loans to pay full-ticket for textbooks, or try to make their way in the world without post-secondary education.

Not only are commercial textbooks impossibly expensive, there is almost no evidence in the peer-reviewed, scholarly literature about their effectiveness or impact on learning. A major publisher recently announced a new initiative designed to study the efficacy of the materials they sell to students. I hope this initiative takes the scholarly path and submits its results to the rigors of the peer-review process for publication in academic journals. However, should it turn out that some of this company’s products are effective (or more effective than their competitors’ offerings), what do you suppose will happen to pricing? I doubt it will come down; it will likely only rise higher. (See Efficacy, the Golden Ratio, and the OER Impact Factor.)

Efficacy efforts are meaningless if they don’t address issues of affordability. Textbooks are becoming like a $10,000 per dose cancer treatment, “proven effective” in the lab but completely out of the reach of the majority of people who would benefit from them.

Is openness the pin that will pop the textbook bubble?

Which open are we talking about? We’re not talking about things that are free. The entire internet is free to access and read – CNN, BBC, National Geographic, HuffPo, etc. Free is, by itself, completely undifferentiating. To be called “open,” something must be free AND provide you with a broad set of copyright permissions. We call these the 5R permissions – Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute. (See The Access Compromise and the 5th R.)

Anything which is free to use but traditionally copyrighted is absolutely not “open.” Materials or software that claim to be “open” but are traditionally copyrighted “All Rights Reserved” are more appropriately called “faux-pen” (fake open).

The inferiority of free to open is not simply a matter of philosophy. As we conduct original research and review the literature on empirical impacts on student outcomes when faculty make a displacing adoption, we’re beginning to see an interesting trend. Adopting an open textbook in place of your commercial textbook, and using it the same way you used your commercial textbook, will get you the same student success outcomes at a radically lower cost for students. And that’s terrific. But when a faculty member leverages the possibilities provided by OER to improve their pedagogy in ways that are only possible in the context of the 5R permissions, drastic improvements in student success are possible. (Again, see The Importance of Getting in the Air.)

Just as the core internet infrastructure runs on open source software – apache, sendmail, postfix, mysql, postgres, redis, mongo, hadoop, php, python, etc. – the core content infrastructure supporting education is shifting rapidly toward OER.

It started slowly with a faculty member adopting OER in place of a commercial textbook, what we call a “displacing adoption.” One happened here, another happened there, scattered and uncoordinated. Then it began happening in a coordinated way at scale, at schools like Tidewater Community College. Their “Z Degree” replaces commercial textbooks across their entire Business Administration degree program with OER. (Lumen Learning was privileged to work together with Tidewater on that project.) After Tidewater’s success, Z Degree-like projects are in planning stages all across the country.

Just as high enrollment general education courses subsidize much of what happens in colleges and universities, high sales volume general education titles are primary revenue streams for traditional publishers, subsidizing other activities. As the highest enrolling general education courses and highest enrolling degree programs replace commercial textbooks with OER, sales will drop to historic lows and prices will rise to historic highs.

As a bit of context, in less than five years we think Lumen Learning can be helping faculty replace commercial textbooks with OER for 10 million students a year. This will pull around $1B US out of the textbook market each year and give those dollars back to students. Other organizations that focus on OER adoption will have additional impacts. Every time publishers raise prices of textbooks and digital products, they make it easier for us. But publishers can’t help it. They will keep raising prices, faster and faster.

By 2020, the textbook market bubble will pop, completely resetting faculty and student expectations about (1) the prices of educational materials and (2) what we should be permitted to do with educational materials (5R activities). “Open” is the pin.

1 thought on “The Pin that Popped the Textbook Bubble: Open (Notes for my 2015 #sxswedu talk)”

  1. Easy Learning Courses, is an organisation that conducts vocational training, computer courses and several other professional courses that help our students in either acquiring a qualification, or in passing several mandatory tests in the UK.

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