Woah, we’re half-way there!

Project Leader Sarah Lambert reports on project progress. We’re over the half-way point of our project, and data collection is well underway. As we talk to more students and staff about Open Textbooks and inclusive learning materials, the gap between overseas research and our starting assumptions for this project keep widening. It’s an interesting time. The U.S.A Student-led policy research group (PIRG) released a research report last week called “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market”, which really highlighted some major differences between American research and the context in Australia.

We are not America

The two major problems plaguing the American textbook market do not so far seem to be a big issue here:  time-limited access codes to publishers textbooks (and quizzes) and the “inclusive access” automated billing programs (monthly payments like Netflix). As Deakin Library manager Colin Bates notes, this is courtesy of some Australian legislation, the Higher Education Act which “basically says that universities can’t force students to pay anything extra for materials that are required to successfully complete their course (I’m paraphrasing of course). That means most university libraries have seen it as part of their role to provide cost free access to prescribed/recommended readings so that students are not forced to buy a textbook. We tend not to attempt class sets or universal access as it is financially unsustainable.”  Kate Allen at La Trobe Library agrees that access codes and monthly payments are not much of a thing in Australia, although she notes that “students sometimes have the option to rent an e-textbook for the length of the unit, which costs less than buying it outright”, a similar arrangement to the monthly payments for “inclusive access” seen in the U.S.A.  

Australian and USA flags

Frank Ponte at RMIT Library notes that “Publishers have been quite aggressive in the way they have approached this [access codes] directly with academic staff and Libraries are often left out of the picture. In one instance the school paid for access, which removes the legislative breach, so technically, this would be OK. But publisher platforms are problematic when you are talking about student data and willingly providing this information to publishers has implications, such as student privacy and data ownership. In my view, student learning analytics are the domain of the university LMS.”

The problems we share

Australian and American Universities do share the problem of text-book company reps pressuring academics into new features, new deals and version upgrades which may increase costs and put limits on access. Arlene O’Sullivan at La Trobe Library notes that over the last few years La Trobe has phased out access-code type digital delivery models such as Vital Source and Pearson which in some subjects were found to be expensive as well as difficult to licence and manage for both the University and students. However, she notes the current digital delivery models “which do not allow a library to purchase a copy for our users are a problem.” This has also been raised as a major new concern by other library staff we have consulted with. Custom editions, which are typically a pick-and-mix of textbook chapters from various sources are also a major issue for Australian libraries. These can often be delivered for students for free through the library’s digital rights to those chapters. We shouldn’t ask students and libraries to pay again for “custom” editions which are made up of material the library has already paid for!

As digital textbooks and resources cement their place as the new normal of higher education, it is more important than ever to consult your librarians before signing up to custom editions and new digital deals as the devil really is in the contractual detail.

These issues means that our research into the potential benefits for Open Textbooks in Australia are turning up different research findings to what is published in the USA. Here’s a summary of what we’re seeing so far, noting that we have quite a few different institutions to talk to and that may change things again.

  1. Cost is less of a problem. The cost of textbooks in the US is a larger proportion of higher education study costs than in Australia. Australian law prevents universities from forcing students to buy materials leading to our libraries playing a big role in provision of free access to textbooks. Students are adept at accessing free versions, still buy second hand print versions, and are up for sharing a copy between friends, (even starting to share digital access.) However Australian University Libraries are very keen on Open textbooks to enable them to stretch their limited budgets further. Australian Open Textbooks advocates seem more likely to come from Libraries based on reductions in Institutional budgets, rather than pressures to adopt based on individual student costs (and related to this, student union advocacy) as in the U.S.A.
  2. The best free textbook is no textbook. Many Australian universities are very experienced with digital provision, and it’s not uncommon for academics to ditch textbooks altogether in favour of curated collections of free digital learning materials. This might include a chapter from a textbook here and there, all linked to the appropriate topic and assignment in the unit website. Ensuring free and unrestricted student access to learning materials may mean dropping the textbook altogether.
  3. Required texts are more of a suggestion. Australian students are making particular judgements about whether it’s necessary to purchase or even refer to a textbook. We are interviewing many who will still not buy them, even if they are “required” or “essential” reading. Often, they say the Powerpoint presentations (or other materials) are plenty to get by on, and the (library accessible) textbook might only be referred to for an assignment or to clarify a particular issue. Sometimes it’s not the cost that makes the decision, but how hard the topic is for the student, which is a very personal judgement. Where the student rates the topic as hard, they might buy the textbook so they can work through all the materials and exercises.
  4. Some study areas haven’t used textbooks for decades. They rely on up-to-date collections of resources. This is similar finding to research into Open textbooks in the UK which found quality and the ability to modify and customise Open textbooks were important levers for adoption.
  5. Custom editions are popular in Australia. Academics are keen to have customised texts and Australian editions. Pick and mixing chapters from a commercial publisher’s catalogue and/or including some locally written chapters are popular. However, they are usually no cheaper than the original versions with twice the number of chapters.
  6. Open Textbooks for niche not foundations topics. Australian universities like La Trobe University and University of Southern Queensland who are pioneering DIY in-house Open Textbook production are often getting traction and interest in niche or advanced level topics, rather than foundatations/100 level topics including STEM and business basics which are hugely popular in the U.S.A.
  7. Modifying, localising, and improving seem to be of interest. Similar to the UK research, Australian academics seem to be interested in writing and modifying Open textbooks and to form communities of authors creating their own content. This allows for inclusion of up to date Australian case studies and perspectives. QUT’s recent Open textbook Grant program was highly popular and the experience of using the PressBooks platform with support from the Open Textbook Library Network proved a winning combination. Some academics chose to modify an existing Open Textbook, others had manuscripts lying around ready to go but had been unable to find a publisher who was interested in it. This trend is supported by a parallel rise in interest in open access publishing where academics are realising they’d rather publish their book open-access and offer it free to the world (and their students!) than lock their knowledge up behind copyright for the possibility of very meagre royalty fees.
  8. Social Justice and re-writing of biased histories. Related to the point above about a rise in interest in writing and modifying Open textbooks, it will be interesting to see if Australian academics will take up the opportunity to correct the under-representation of women in STEM and Management textbooks. Women’s contributions to the development of many fields of knowledge are often not acknowledged in our textbooks and this produces ongoing bias and stereotyping, which is not lost on some of the students we have interviewed. There is also a great opportunity to correct the under-representation and mis-representation of Indigenous people, communities and knowledges that exist in current textbooks and learning materials generally. Indigenising curricula has gained policy traction in recent years, but there seem to be a lack of practical tools to make this happen. Open Textbooks provide one such concrete avenue.

Category list: progress report, research

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