Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Open Letter to Textbook Publishers

Dear Textbook Publishers,

I have a question for some of you.  Having been in administration for quite a while now, I know that sometimes things that seem easy and obvious from the outside, aren’t.  So I’m wondering if there’s a smarter answer to this than anything I can figure.

Why aren’t all of you issuing all of your major textbooks in formats that are accessible to students with disabilities?  

I’m trying to be careful here.  Some publishers are quite good about it, freely making available electronic editions of their popular texts so that students who need alternate formats can be up to speed from the first day of class.  To you, I’m grateful.  In the community college world, we’re focused on student success; it’s hard for a student to succeed when she can’t get the textbook until it has been ripped up and scanned.  The publishers who make it easy upfront do a real service.

But some don’t.  And the workarounds in those cases -- especially at community colleges, where our mission dictates access and our budgets dictate light staffing -- are time-consuming, expensive, and absurdly cumbersome.  That may have been necessary ten or twenty years ago, but it shouldn’t be now, when everything is prepared electronically.

I hate to “go there,” but part of the push for Open Educational Resources is in response to exactly this issue.  If a commercial textbook that costs two hundred dollars has to be ripped apart and scanned manually, by someone paid to do that, but an OER resource is accessible and free, well, what would you do?


I understand that some very specialized subjects and texts are basically monopolies.  But nobody ‘owns,’ say, Intro to Sociology.  

Please understand what I’m saying here.  You have the opportunity here to do well while doing good.  Taking the extra step upfront to make your stuff accessible isn’t only virtuous, although it is; it’s also a way of maintaining market position in the face of an increasing array of alternatives.  Because -- and I hate to be so blunt, but at this point, you’re forcing my hand -- if you don’t provide options that meet our students’ needs, we’ll increasingly find other sources that will.  Any cost savings you’re hoarding will be more than swamped by lost adoptions.  Every single time we have to do some expensive and time-consuming workaround, OER options look that much better.

I’m not bluffing.  I don’t have to.

The law has changed, the world has changed, and technology has changed.  You can step up and do the right thing, and in so doing, try to protect your market position.  Or you can let your standing erode, protecting an exclusionary practice out of, well, I don’t know what.  

As my regular readers know, I grew up in Rochester, New York, which used to be a company town for Kodak.  Kodak was slow to move into digital photography.  You know the rest.  You can choose to move with the world, or you can choose to follow Kodak.  I’ve seen that movie, and know how it ends.  You don’t want to choose that route.

Holdouts, step up.  Do the right thing.  We will do right by our students, with you or without you.  Which will it be?


Matt Reed