from the market-forces-or-government-interference dept
The goal of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges project is to boost college completion rates by making higher education more affordable. The online library will house a collection of textbooks, readings, activities, and other educational materials for 81 of the state’s most popular general education and pre-college courses. The texts are available under an open license to other higher education institutions, as well as anyone else who wants to access them.That's quite a program, and should make for quite a difference in terms of costs for students. In his submission, Aaron wonders if this is market forces or market interference. It's an interesting question, and it makes me wonder if there might be a better solution. First, though, it's necessary to recognize that the textbook & courseware market is not an open and competitive market, because the buyers -- students -- aren't given any choice at all. They have to buy what their professors tell them to buy, for the most part. So, the state getting involved to force down prices is definitely a reasonable response to that problem.
The effort has the potential to save students millions of dollars. The average community college student in Washington spends about $1,200 per year on textbooks—about a quarter of the total cost of attending school full-time. Some classes will still require students to purchase a textbook, but for Open Course Library classes, the cost can’t exceed $30 per student. All other materials will be free.
But I do wonder if that solution creates other problems. Suddenly the courses and books chosen for that online library are the only ones likely to be used, which could leave out other courses and sources that may be even better. That leaves some concerns about who chooses what books go into the open library. The library does seem willing to let in other courseware, so long as it's posted online with a Creative Commons license -- so perhaps this concern is solved by that. The fact that this might encourage more courseware and text creators to move to Creative Commons or similar licenses may be a useful side benefit.
Either way, in the end, education is an area where smart government involvement makes sense (though, the "smart" part often isn't evident in education efforts we see). And, on its face, this seems like a good way to drive down costs and share more education information. And I'd guess that the more disruptive education tools providers -- like Flat World Knowledge and Khan Academy -- might appreciate and work with Washington State on this effort, benefiting everyone, and making sure that there really are a wide variety of courseware options that are either free or very cheaply priced.