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The CITE, a blog published by the National Association of College Stores, takes a look at the intersection of education and technology, highlighting issues that range from course materials to learning delivery to the student experience. Comments, discussion, feedback, and ideas are welcome.


Friday, March 18, 2011

CAMEX questions answered: Open learning/access

This week's question from CAMEX is about open learning or open access course materials. For the short and direct answer to the question, read only the first paragraph. For the longer and more complete answer, read the full text.

Q. How much impact will I expect from the open learning component of digital delivery?

A. My expectation is that open access course materials (OACM) will grow to probably 10% of the course material market over the next several years. However, as with much of the digital movement, the focus is on the largest textbook adoptions where the impact will be greatest. That means the spread of open access textbooks could affect college store revenues -- which in turn translates into an impact on the financial aid and student services budgets on many campuses.

As an anecdotal example, I heard from one community college yesterday where the administration was apparently surprised by the financial impact that occured to the store's contributions to the institution's budget this spring when some faculty moved their large textbook adoptions to an OACM option. We heard a similar story last year from another large university where the move of one of their largest textbook adoptions to a free, online OACM option had a net impact of close to US$1M on the financial aid budget. OACM is likely here to stay, and so campus administrations should begin to plan for that to have some financial impact.

The open access movement has some strengths and weaknesses. On the strength side, it is an active approach to reducing the cost of course materials. Like the dot-com and real-estate bubbles before it, the textbook and tuition bubbles cannot keep going up forever. At some point these bubbles will pop and the models will have to change. The OACM movement, whether by design or accident, will focus greater attention on the interconnection between these two bubbles. The supporters of the OACM movement have been very vocal, aggressive, and active in getting changes in legislation and grant support. They have been very good as a movement in getting their point heard and supported. Unfortunately, this is not always done with accurate information.

On the weakness side, much of the OACM movement has yet to prove itself as sustainable over the long term. Will grant money and federal support continue forever? Again, while there are very notable exceptions, much of the movement has challenges with quality control and accessibility for students with disabilities. The latter is a challenge for several segments of the digital course materials movement and not just OACM. Hopefully some of the grant and federal dollars put into OACM will focus on developing more long-term sustainability models and not just short term textbook replacements. This is an area where the college store community could and should contribute and actively participate.

The OACM movement has produced some wins for nearly all parties -- reducing cost of course materials, while producing some quality course materials and revenue opportunities. Do not forget, while companies like FlatWorld are frequently held up as the "poster child" for OACM, they are still a for-profit company and have at least some expectation of building a business model that will be at least self-sustaining if not profitable.

With all of the above in consideration, NACS and the college store community -- particularly but not exclusively in the community college space -- have been serving a positive role in supporting the open access course material movement. Here are a few examples, which is only a small set of our industry’s activity in this area:

• The NACS board formally adopted a policy statement in support of the OACM movement more than two years ago.

• We have initiatives within NACS, and its subsidiary NACS Media Solutions, that have specifically focused on helping the open access movement become more sustainable by making it easier to distribute those materials through the college store channel. As one example, we conducted a pilot with FlatWorld Knowledge last semester, and are expanding our efforts to include other open access course material providers.

• As recently as last week we highlighted one of our community college store directors who has actively encouraged faculty on his campus to consider and adopt open access course materials and other options to reduce textbook prices.

• At CAMEX this year, our annual educational event, we had at least four sessions that directly addressed open access course materials and provided stores with information on how to get involved.

It is the mission of most college stores to provide students with all course materials required to be successful in the classroom, regardless of whether or not those course materials are free. Many college stores work very hard to reduce the cost of textbooks for students. This is information stores MUST get better at communicating to both their internal and external communities.

If you have not seen it, you should take a look at EDUCAUSE's recent "7 things you should know about..." piece on open access course materials. Initially it contained a factual error regarding bookstores, which has subsequently been corrected. I raise this point because college stores collectively have not been good in communicating what they are doing with open access course materials and that can lead to inaccurate understanding of the role we play and the things we do to try to reduce course material costs for students.

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