Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Ask the Administrator: Labeling OER Sections

A new correspondent writes:

The state of CA does some interesting things that are often not thought through…..

“This bill would require each campus of the California Community Colleges and the California State University, and would request each campus of the University of California, to identify in the online version of the campus course schedule its courses that exclusively use digital course materials, as specified, and communicate to students that the course materials for these courses are free of charge and therefore not required to be purchased. By imposing new duties on community college districts, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program. The bill would become operative on January 1, 2018.”

So, for our spring schedule we have to identify courses that use free course materials.  For the students this is great, but I see many larger implications.  If one section of a course uses online/free materials, but the others don’t, will the students choose the free one resulting in cancellations of sections that do not?  Will this force all faculty to migrate to the free/online materials?  What will happen to publishers?  What will be the incentive for faculty to write textbooks or course material?

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of legislative mandates that get into the educational weeds.  Even assuming good intentions, the interventions are often much blunter than the organizations they’re trying to improve.  That’s why I’m a fan of streamlined remediation, for instance, but I don’t support the Connecticut legislation that mandated how it must be done.

That said, though, I’m having a hard time finding fault with this one.  

At its core, it’s about disclosure.  Students want to, and should, know which sections won’t require them to buy books.  That may sound petty, but given the reality of student basic needs that Sara Goldrick-Rab and others have documented, it isn’t.  California is many things, but a low cost-of-living state it is not.  For a student on the economic margins, the difference between a couple of OER sections and a couple of sections with $200 textbooks could be the difference between staying and dropping out.  

Yes, signalling to students which sections have OER might lead them to vote with their feet (or clicks).  But I think that’s a feature, not a bug.  If I were a student picking classes, all else being equal, I imagine I’d choose OER sections over sections that would make me buy books.  

“What will happen to publishers?”  Those who can’t adapt their business models to provide greater value for the money will probably fold.  Those who can adapt will probably thrive.  For example, in math, some publishers have started providing test banks and homework assignments to go along with OER texts.  They’ve figured out that it’s hard to compete with free on the book itself, but that supplemental materials, such as test banks and homeworks, require more frequent updates than OER sources sometimes provide.  They found a profit center.  

The incentives argument is real, but I have a hard time believing that we need to accept the textbook prices we’ve seen over the last several years in order to reward writers.  For introductory courses, there’s certainly no shortage of instructors who are dissatisfied with existing texts; a little institutional support for collaboration can go a long way.  

At my own college, we’ve actually put an icon next to sections that have let us know that they’re using OER precisely in order to help students find them.  The incentive institutionally is to encourage faculty to adopt OER where they can, because it gets a barrier to student success out of the way.  Whatever we lose in bookstore revenue we’ll more than make up through improved retention and completion, and I’d much rather generate revenue by helping students than by milking them.

So yes, I understand the impulse to resist legislative meddling, and often agree with it.  But in this case, they may actually have done something right.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is mandating the disclosure of OER sections a good idea?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.