Monday, May 02, 2005

Online Textbook Publishers

Here is an area where my knowledge of Economics doesn't guide me and really I have very little instinct on how to move on the issue. There are both opportunities and concerns. The fundamental question is whether the textbook publishers should be our partners, whom we enlist to "provide content" particularly of the interactive kind for courses inside the course management system or if instead we resist these folks vehemently and try to deliver something without them.

As an aside, I sit on the campus committee (called a working group) for our new Institutional Repository (named IDEALS - Illinois Digital Environment....). Certainly one thought that has motivated the IR movement (from the Library's perspective, at the least) is that we gave away the farm with scholarly publishing and are forced to buy back from the publishers content that we (faculty in higher ed) generated and the buy back is at very high prices. I have that thought in the back of my mind when talking about online textbooks or online course packs.

The primary reason why we'd want to partner with the publishers is that first the publishers are good aggregators of content and second that they have the ability to reward good content contributions. In the old days we used to give out internal grants for faculty to generate content (and to adjust their course to be taught with a signficant online component). But those days are long gone. So the thinking goes let's use the marketplace to compensate the content contributors and then let's promote re-use of the content via the publishers. The faculty who want to have a good online component but who don't want design the content themselves and who don't want to be beholden to their colleagues down the hall have a reasonable alternative. That is the reason to move ahead.

There are several reasons to jam your foot on the brakes. For example, we discussed this issue briefly at our last Ed Tech Board meeting and an Associate Provost who was present opined that any model which forced the students to pony up a credit card number to get somePIN from the publisher as access to the course was too coercive an approach and also the approach discriminated against lower income kids who might not have the credit card and might not be able to afford the incremental charge. The only way around it that I see is for the campus to buy access for the entire class. But that has its own problems, particularly on whether the cost can be recovered.

In the old days of paper an instructor would require a textbook and a copy or two of the book would go up on reserve. (Incidentally, the Library is apparently getting tons of requests to "buy" textbooks now to have them put on reserve apparently so that students don't have to purchase the books.) So from the student's perspective there was both the purchase route (which gave maximal convenience at some price) and the go to the Reserve Room route, which was free but less convenient. The students sorted themselves by self-selection across these two alternatives and I'd guess that in some cases the conscientious student who had purchased the book also used the book in Reserves.

Now we're into the electronic approach and this possibility of a two-tiered model seems difficult. It makes sense to me that if we did go ahead the campus should buy instead of the students. And if that was the Library, it would be something that in some sense they are already doing. (To date, however, our Library has not purchased any content that would be housed inside the CMS.) But the Library doesn't have a budget to incur this additional costs and there doesn't seem like an obvious way for them to recover that cost. (Perhaps they should solicit voluntary contributions from the undergraduates the way Public Radio does fund raising drives from their listeners. I'm not holding my breath on this one.)

This is not the only concern. The other biggie is student privacy and whether homework grades will reside on publisher servers. I talked with a publisher rep last Friday and his response to that one is that we're really talking about low stakes assessment here - online homework - and for that the privacy issues are no big deal. In a loosey goosey way, I agree, sort of. But consider this argument. Instructors should put the weights in course credit where the learning is occuring. If that happens online, then that is where the credit should be. (For the moment, abstract away from the academic integrity issues.) So where there is good online homework, that might account for say 50% of the grade. Now the assessment is not so low stakes and the privacy concerns can step up and bite. At the level of the campus, we can't sanction an activity based on an assumption like assuming the instructor will count the work for no more than 10% of the grades. If we're going to trust the publisher on the privacy front it is because we've thought that through, given them some hurdles to clear, and they've demonstrated they can clear the hurdles. At the moment, we've done no such thing.

Where should I be on this issue? I really don't know. And I don't know what I need to learn to make a decision. But I sense this will be an important issues in the next year or so. The publisher rep said this industry is going through a significant transformation now. And I've been invited to a meeting by the IUB (campus bookstore) oversight committee because they are thinking about new models and trying to figure out where the electronic publishing part fits in. I would like to be a leader here but I just don't know enought to do so.

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