Some economists say OpenStax and other OER producers helped to halt the decades-long rise of textbook prices, which, along with other supplies, now set the average undergraduate back between $1,200 and $1,440 each school year, according to the College Board.
Feeling squeezed, for-profit publishers are searching for new revenue by selling colleges digital homework systems that charge students up to $100 for a semester’s worth of access. Since professors typically require use of these tools to participate in class, students complain that they are essentially being charged to turn in their assignments.
First, OpenStax came for textbooks. Now, it’s coming for courseware.
And for some faculty, the biggest question is: What about the extras the publishers give us (like those homework systems that automatically grade work students turn in)?
“They’re not very inclined to take on a new textbook that will require them to change the way they’ve been teaching, significantly altering their syllabus with new tests and resources and ways of assessing students, changing their PowerPoint slides,” says Nathan Smith, philosophy instructor and OER coordinator at Houston Community College, which offers a few “Z-Degrees,” the catchy phrase used to describe entire programs that have zero textbook costs.
“But once faced with intense competition from Open Stax, et al., the ‘textbook cartel’ had to, for the first time, start offering low-cost options for students to maintain their market share, or suffer from a significant loss of market share,” Perry said in an email interview.
For example, this year, giants Cengage and McGraw-Hill announced plans to merge and offer a subscription-based service that combines their digital libraries. Many publishers are also pushing “inclusive access” programs, in which colleges buy access to digital textbooks from publishers in bulk and then charge students a fee to cover those costs.
Commercial texts and tools make it too easy for some faculty to outsource their teaching and course design, Smith says, although he’s empathetic to part-time instructors whose workloads outweigh their resources. Open materials return some power to professors.
“We’re letting publishers determine what gets taught in our institutions,” Smith says. “I think a part of reclaiming faculty integrity and academic freedom—and what we think is most important about our jobs—is to reclaim the control of your course materials.”
results have been mixed, but a meta-analysis published this year in the journal Educational Technology Research and Development found “students achieve the same or better learning outcomes when using OER while saving significant amounts of money.”