State of Washington to Offer Online Materials as Texts

Money-saving effort at 2-year colleges faces vexing problems

Stephen Brashear for The Chronicle

Cable Green, of the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges, says students pay $1,000 a year for books, so the savings in switching to online materials were obvious.
January 09, 2011

It's a question that students, and a growing number of their professors, are asking: Why require students to buy expensive textbooks every year, when the Internet is awash in information, much of it free? After all, the words of Plato have not changed in the past 2,000 years, nor has basic algebra.

Washington State's financially strapped Legislature, which foots much of the textbook bill for community-college students on state financial aid, has wondered the same thing. With nearly half a million students taking classes at the state's 34 two-year colleges, why not assemble very inexpensive resources for the most popular classes and allow access to those materials online? And why not cap the cost of those course materials at $30?

Calculating the savings, when students are paying up to $1,000 for books each year, was an exercise in simple math, says Cable Green, director of e-learning and open education at the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges. "We believe we can change the cost of attending higher education in this country and in the world," he says. "If we are all teaching the same 81 courses, why not?"

So with a $750,000 matching grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the board has started an ambitious program to develop low-cost, online instructional materials for its community and technical colleges. For the Open Course Library, as the materials are known, teams of community-college instructors, librarians, and Web designers from around the state are creating ready-to-use digital course modules for the 81 highest-enrolled courses. The first 43 courses, which are as varied as "General Biology" and "Introduction to Literature 1," will be tested in classrooms beginning this month.

The basic design requirements of the Open Course Library are simple enough. The material must be available online and accessible to anyone, says Mr. Green. Faculty designers, hired for their teaching experience and expertise in the subject, can use material from anywhere and anyone, as long as they abide by licensing agreements. Instructors can then use and revise the material as they see fit, dropping and adding components to customize the course for their own students. And now they have peer-vetted syllabi, lecture notes, and teaching materials, available with a few clicks of the mouse.

If the course designers feel that the best instructional materials are online versions of traditional textbooks, that's fine. Or they can use a smorgasbord of teaching modules and exercises developed by other open-learning projects, such as those created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University. Interactive-learning Web sites and even instructional videos on YouTube are also perfectly acceptable resources.

Math Problems

That $30 cap is proving to be daunting.

During a recent meeting of mathematics professors and librarians who are designing the courseware for Washington's algebra, precalculus, and statistics courses, it was clear that no one was completely satisfied with what could be found online. "A lot of things that are open are old," said Melonie D. Rasmussen, who teaches at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, in Lakewood, Wash. "Or they are open and strange. She remembers a 1980s math book posted online that refers to VCR's. It would take more time to explain what a VCR was than the math itself, she joked.

Many course designers thought they would find everything they needed in the open content offered by universities like Carnegie Mellon. Those treasure-troves, developed with grants from several foundations, offer free courses in addition to lecture notes, virtual laboratories, and online "cognitive tutors" that guide students through complex problem-solving exercises. One company, Flat World Knowledge, offers free online textbooks that professors can customize for their own classes. (Flat World makes its money by selling ancillary study guides.)

But instructors in this group were annoyed with the assumption that it's just a matter of plucking ripe fruit off the Internet tree. They said they had been surprised to discover how few open-source sites cater to students who struggle with basic math, which describes many at the community-college level.

Traditional textbook publishers, which now promote e-textbooks, aren't the solution, insisted David Lippman, who teaches math at Pierce College and is a self-confessed open-source purist. "I find the publishers' online offerings nothing more than the old ancillaries they've always offered bundled up in a proprietary system," he said.

For under $30, access to e-textbooks wouldn't get you the entire book, and what you do buy is typically good for only one academic quarter. Printing out a hard copy costs extra. There's also no guarantee that publishers won't raise prices. Mr. Lippman acknowledged that computer-generated math problems and solutions that textbook publishers now offer are popular and helpful, but he noted that they are not free.

Even if course material is free, different licensing rules can make it cumbersome to lift and blend with other work into a seamless text, said Federico Marchetti, of Shoreline Community College. Cutting and pasting also produces a mishmash of styles and teaching approaches, creating confusion. With the amount of editing and rewriting necessary to incorporate various kinds of material into his "Introduction to Statistics" class, he said, "it is actually faster to just write something from scratch."

It's Greek to Some

Online textbooks, even custom produced, aren't an option for Tom Kerns, who is designing the "Introduction to Philosophy" course for the Open Course Library. Philosophy students need to use primary sources, says Mr. Kerns, who has taught online courses for years at North Seattle Community College. And that is where he is stumped. If students could read Plato in ancient Greek and Schopenhauer in German, then it would not be an issue. But the five books he wants to assign are modern translations using current idioms, and they break the $30 bank. The general public buys those books, so mainstream publishers aren't inclined to cut students special deals or offer e-book versions.

"They aren't going to change their pricing policy for me and say, 'Your students can have them for free,'" Mr. Kerns says. "I have not figured out how I am going to avoid having two different courses­—one for people who can afford the books, and another for people who can't. I am flummoxed."

Finding enough material isn't Jennie K. Mayer's problem. Sitting in an office at Bellevue College, with stacks of chemistry books that reach to the ceiling, Ms. Mayer says she and her colleagues are not overly concerned about choosing a text for the "Introduction to Chemistry" course. "A lot of publishers have approached us and have offered e-books for less than $30 a quarter," she says. "They pretty much teach the same thing."

Her concern is that chemistry students at this level need supplemental materials to explain basic science concepts. That means plodding through the dizzying array of information out there. A single instructor, particularly a harried adjunct, is unlikely to have the time to sort through the good and the bad, much less to test experiments that just might blow up the lab. So Ms. Mayer and her chemistry colleagues want to build a course with added material that is as much for the instructor as for the student.

On one day this past November, the team was writing the module on kinetic molecular theory. This is a particular challenge, Ms. Mayer said. Many of their students lack a fundamental understanding of how air pressure works. But she knows just what experiment will make it clear. Ms. Mayer typed "egg in a bottle" into Google. Up popped dozens of links to odd but strangely compelling YouTube videos of amateur and professional scientists' demonstrating how a change in atmospheric pressure can force a hard-boiled egg to squeeze through a narrow-necked glass bottle. That, she said, is something you can't show in a textbook.

Mr. Green, of the state community-college board, says the Open Course Library is very much a work in progress, and may always be. Indeed, its success depends upon the academic community to continually review, revise, and improve the courses, and then post them back online for others. (The idea of freely sharing information, he concedes, might just be the more challenging cultural shift.)

But "getting there" is not in question, says Mr. Green. He says he's been blunt with textbook publishers and has encouraged them to get on board if they can.

"You saw what happened with Craigslist and newspapers," he says, referring to the free classified advertising that has helped force some newspapers out of business and required others to reinvent themselves. "We are going to get there with or without you."