Monday, June 4, 2007

Making textbooks more affordable

The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance has released a new report: Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable. I read the whole report looking for something inspirational and came away wanting. Michael Feldstein at e-Literate summarizes the report's conclusions:
Costs and effectiveness of learning materials was beyond the scope and resources of the Advisory Committee. The recommendation to defer Congressional action provides time to better understand the costs and effectiveness of “other learning materials” before attempting to restructure “the market” through legislation. Hopefully higher education will make good use of the time the Advisory Committee is suggesting.

"Restructure the market through legislation?" Okay...

The one thing the report did really well was to define the magnitude of the problem:

Nearly all the components of college expenses outpaced the CPI from 1987 to 2004 for both two-year and four-year public colleges. Although tuition and fees dominated the growth in expenses, textbook expenses rose more quickly than every other component at two-year public colleges, and every component but room and board at four-year public colleges. Textbook expenses rose far more rapidly than the prices of other commodities nationwide: 107% at two-year public colleges and 109% at four-year public colleges, compared to 65% for the CPI. According to this measure alone – annual expenses per student over time – policymakers might conclude that textbooks have become increasingly unaffordable.

So after four public hearings and a year of study what is their proposed solution: "A National Digital Marketplace". Here's a taste of what their recommendations will do for for the learner:

The transaction and rights clearinghouse would process each multi-part transaction, collect funds from the purchaser, and pay each content provider or other fiduciary participant. For example, a student might select eight or ten learning objects, all of them from different publishers or content providers. The student would make a single financial transaction, as at any store, in which the objects were priced, totaled, and paid for with a single payment. The clearinghouse would distribute among the multiple providers the various payments due: royalties, fees for resources, and/or commissions.

The clearinghouse would also provide persistent rights protection for each content provider through whatever digital rights management capability chosen by the content provider. Content would be tracked by the system so that content owners would know, even if provided at no cost, who had used the content and in what context.

God help us! I saw nothing in this report that would bring the systemic changes needed to make a real difference to learners. I saw nothing innovative. Then again, I don't know why we would expect the people who lead us into this mess to be the ones to lead us out.

If we want to fix this we're going to need to fix it ourselves. We have that ability. We don't need a government solution. We're not going to solve it with more of the same tired-old-thinking.

There are some people attempting some interesting alternatives: California Open Source Textbook Project. We need some progressive faculty/university leadership to throw their weight behind these types of initiatives. As I have said on many occasions, it is a perfect mission for our nation's land-grant universities with their democratic mandate for openness, accessibility, and service to people...

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