Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Free, If You Can Get It

Is a free textbook a good deal? It depends. Textbook costs are a real issue for students at many community colleges. For the intro to biology sequence, for example, the textbook and lab manual combine to cost over three hundred dollars. That’s pretty close to the tuition and fees for the course. For students who are paying their own way, or who work at minimum wage jobs to get through college, that’s real money. Multiply that by several courses over a few semesters, and the impact on, say, loan burdens is no small thing. Some universities are experimenting now with programs to encourage faculty to draw their course materials from free online resources. The idea is to help offset costs for students and, more cynically, to make tuition increases easier to swallow. After all, from a student’s perspective, total cost is the key issue. If a student saves a few hundred bucks on books, a slightly larger than usual tuition increase suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. If a college can shift money from publishers to itself, why not? The devil is in the details. Most of the examples I’ve seen rely on electronic resources. E-books, databases, and even selected websites (i.e. Khan Academy) can often fill in for paper textbooks. But they all require internet access on a device with a big enough screen. We can’t always assume that. We have computer labs on campus, but they’re frequently full. We have wifi on campus, more or less, but it still requires that the student provide the device. And when students are off campus, the cost of internet access falls on them. Given that students often do their reading and homework off campus, this is a major issue. Mobile broadband seems like one possible solution, but in these parts, the coverage is spotty and maddeningly inconsistent. (Annoyingly, only one carrier has good enough coverage here to be a viable option, and even that one is flawed.) Dead-tree books have the clear advantage of portability. A book that’s readable in the library is also readable in the cafeteria, on the bus, or at home, and at no additional cost. It doesn’t require the student to invest in infrastructure beyond a backpack and maybe a lamp. Electronic resources aren’t quite there yet, at least for commuter schools. (I suppose a residential college could make this work, given enough connectivity on campus. But that’s not my world.) Which means that the cost savings offered by electronic resources are predicated on an already-existing investment. If you already have, say, an ipad, and you already have wifi at home, then the savings are real. If you don’t, they aren’t. (ADA compliance remains an issue with cheaper delivery systems. I don’t know if the Nook is ADA compliant, but I’m told that the Kindle still isn’t. Ipads are, but they cost much more.) None of this strikes me as necessarily permanent. If mobile broadband coverage finally hits a critical level of ubiquity and reliability, then I could imagine some sort of leasing program for ipads with 3G (or, ideally, 4G) connectivity. But we aren’t there yet. For now, freebies are only free if you can afford them.