Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Textbook affordability & libraries

With the economic crisis droning on ad infinitum, I've decided that I really missed out not taking an economics course.  When planning my liberal studies program, I had avoided anything that was even close to business courses.  Having lived an additional 20 years, though, I have realized that economics is as important a subject in the social sciences as anthropology and history.  So, I've picked up a few books at my library here (I love being at a general university!) and have started learning a few things.  For instance, did you know that as resources become limited, the cheaper goods become more in demand?  OK, I had learned that one on my own (why else would I shop at Walmart?), but having these basics now at the front of my mind increases my awareness of the economics of everyday life.

Thus it is with textbooks.  As funding for education gets tighter (for students and for institutions), we start looking around for cheaper alternatives.  Textbooks are third in the list of educational expenses - behind tuition and room & board.  My concerns about textbooks has grown since I returned to the field of librarianship and sold many of my old public health books.  Three years before, I had gotten rid of my old LIS books (many of which dated to the 1980s & early 1990's).  What was the point?  I kept these books because they were expensive and because I thought I would need to refer to them regularly in my professional life.  This was not the case.  Except for my biostats book (Rosner, 6th edition - great book), I've rarely re-opened any of my texts.

Some of the best classes I took did not even include a textbook - the readings were hand-selected by the professor and the discussions drawn from them were stimulating and enlightening.  This has led me to conclude that textbooks are a shortcut for faculty whose time is limited for teaching.  This is effectively pushing the cost of developing a curriculum from the institution (who should have paid for the time of the faculty to create the curriculum) to the student and/or the financial aid providers.

So it is with interest that I've been reading about alternatives to textbooks (necessity is the mother of invention, eh?).  Here's a posting on the ACRL Value of Academic Libraries blog about the Alternative Textbooks project. It's exciting to see libraries involved in getting faculty to use its resources (what a thought!) and helping student-retention.  The University of Southern Florida's T.A.P. site serves as a good hub of information about this paradigm shift in curriculum planning. The biggest initiatives towards making textbooks more affordable include Open Access textbooks and class licensing of e-textbooks (McGraw-Hill), which may be a compromise with publishers.

The programs mentioned in the ACRL Value posting are more intriguing because of their involvement with the libraries.  California State University system advocates for faculty to work with their library to identify local resources to support the curriculum.  The key to these programs is providing small amounts of money to pay the faculty to develop their own "texts" using OA and library resources (emphasis added):
At Temple University Libraries we are now in the second year of our local Alternate Textbook Project. In each round ten faculty receive a $1,000 grant to develop an alternate textbook. Although boosting student retention is not explicitly stated, the Project has multiple outcomes: (1) save students money to improve college affordability; (2) encourage faculty to make more use of library and open educational resources; (3) improve student learning.
I'm very interested to see how these projects pan-out and how they could enable libraries to directly impact student retention and add value to students' and universities' outcomes.

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