For Shouhou and Hai Wang, researchers writing for the University of West Georgia’s Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, textbooks are “shamefully expensive.” The solution to this problem has been in the works for over ten years and its name is Open Educational Resources, or OER. But while some students enjoy the benefits of having access to quality content that remains up-to-date, the vast majority of higher education students still must deal with the prices for original textbooks, whose increases since 2003 have tripled the rate of inflation.
Setting outrageous prices for textbooks is a practice of publishers, but in few cases the economics seems to justify it. For highly specialized disciplines, content reaches only a small audience, cases in which premium prices would be justified. But there are also questionable practices across the board. While a book is usually considered a “durable good,” not something supposed to be perishable, recurring updates and revisions seem designed primarily to prevent a market of second-hand textbooks, a practice found to be needlessly “accelerated” by the Wangs. Digital volumes, despite being much easier to manufacture and share, are typically forbidden to be resold.
Promoting OER seems like a straightforward plan, but beyond the monopolistic practices of academic publishers, there are legitimate questions OER providers still have left to answer, beginning with sustainability. As the authors argue, learning efficacy could be the way forward for OER to reach the mainstream. Their research demonstrates that the quality of learning outcomes for OER matches that of commercial textbooks, and when measured using rubrics like quality of peer-based discussions, OER outperforms in some areas. Furthermore, after some time spent with OER, users develop a high level of acceptance towards them, with as much as 90% of survey respondents for whom OER could replace commercial textbooks in the near future.
Short of directly tackling them, bundling OER content into LMS and other platforms would simplify many of the sustainability issues. But sustainable rationales to create and update open-licensed textbooks, particularly on specialized fields, still needs careful looking into.
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