Washington State Guarantees Cheap And Open Courses & Courseware For Students

from the market-forces-or-government-interference dept

We’ve discussed a bunch of times how the lack of market forces in the textbook market has allowed publishers to jack up the prices massively. It’s why various textbooks can cost around $200, and students can spend over $1000 a year just to get the textbooks they’re required to buy for school. Aaron DeOliveira points us to an interesting story involving Washington State trying to end such practices by setting up an Open Course Library that will make course details and courseware much, much cheaper for students:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments on “Washington State Guarantees Cheap And Open Courses & Courseware For Students”

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Audrey Watters (user link) says:

These digital materials can be remixed by instructors, so they aren’t stuck with the textbooks and curriculum as it currently stands. There is, after all, a lot of pressure on instructors already to use certain publishers’ textbooks. This might help liberate folks from other powerful decision-making processes.

But your point about control over curriculum/content is a good one.

Difster (profile) says:

Blame Student Loans

A big part of this problem is directly attributable to the student loan bubble that’s nearly ready to pop.

Government backed school loans from which one can never declare bankruptcy have escalated costs for all aspects of a college education. It’s not just that students are forced to use the books professors tell them to, the universities and publishers all know that it will get paid for (mostly) through student loans. The market is so distorted the demand curve is starting to resemble a Picasso painting.

The government needs to get out of the student loan business so that tuition and book prices can reach some sort of real market equilibrium. That would of course mean there are fewer people in college but that’s not such a bad thing either.

Tom Caswell (user link) says:

Re: Blame Student Loans

I don’t think we can blame student loans for a supply chain that excludes the real consumer — the student. Faculty pick textbooks and students pay for those decisions. Would faculty make different textbook choices if they were spending their own money or trying to stay within a particular budget? What incentive do publishers have to keep costs under control. How can we expect market forces to solve this problem when the ultimate consumer is not even allowed to buy last year’s version?

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Student Books

In most subjects the material taught is a mature matter and one would expect a text book to be generic and have a life of at least 10 years. It is well within the capability of the colleges to agree to a set of standards for each subject and commission the creation of a digital text, with annual added updates each year – as needed, with a major rewrite every 10 years.

Why will they not do this? They are in cahoots with the publishers via the sales at college book stores which have a 35% locked in markup. Some colleges insist that each student show a receipt for the purchase of the mandated course book as a condition to attend classes and even graduate. How can 4 students shares a $250 book with that situation. Students can not even use the library copy – they must buy one. In addition, profs often sell books they print locally to the students at high margins on trapped fish.

Open it all up

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Gritty Books For Gritty Schools.

Well, the impression I got was that the Washington State people seemed to be pre-occupied with coming up with a textbook set which integrates with course management systems for large freshman courses at the remedial-high-school level, eg. College Algebra. For example, it is very important that there must be test sets which are compatible with the instructional software, so that everything gets automatically graded, and scores tabulated in students’ records, etc. The textbook has to come with a test question pool big enough that access to the test pool would not give a student an unfair advantage– because the test pool is sure to leak out. There is something called the “IMS Common Cartridge.” My instinctive reaction on hearing the name was: “is that supposed to be, a book or a round of small-arms ammunition?”


Of course, particularly in the state colleges, teaching loads have got quite high. A recent contract in Ohio (Cincinnati State College) gives the unionized faculty a teaching load of eighteen hours (five or six courses) or more, and the situation must be even worse for the adjuncts.


At this point, they are practically at the same level as high-school teachers, only with appreciably bigger classes. It might work out to teaching six hundred students Algebra, with no administrative back-up, no teaching assistants, or anything like that. Under that kind of regime, it is important to be able to automatically pick up a file containing all the homework for the day, and send it off to India to be graded.

The general environment seems to be rather grittier than that which produced a lot of the existing free textbooks. The other side of the coin is that if you start studying for college admission at the age of twelve instead of fourteen, using freely available Khan Academy modules, and collect a bunch of AP or CLEP certificates, you will secure exemption from nearly all of the courses in the Open Course Library program.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

The FAQ says What is Common Cartridge?

It’s a set of open standards, freely available and without royalty, developed by a global industry consortium with over 80 voting members. These standards, if followed by content developers and learning platforms, enable strict interoperability between content and systems. They also support great flexibility in the type of digital content supported (content can actually be applications) and where such content is located (content and applications in a Common Cartridge can be distributed). (See a diagram of Common Cartridge )

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: To: Bill Jackson, Nov 5th, 2011 @ 12:02pm, Common Cartridges.

Well, yes, I figured that out, but my instinctive reaction is distaste for that particular kind of teaching. When I hear about those type of content management systems, my dominant reaction is a deep gratitude that I went through school much too early to experience them. You don’t teach math by making students recite formulas, you get them to prove things, and to write computer programs which do things, like crunching out successive approximations of a function.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Re: Re: To: Bill Jackson, Nov 5th, 2011 @ 12:02pm, Common Cartridges.

I agree with you. A memorized formula provides no true understanding and fails without it. Being a retired teacher I have seen the value modes and failure modes of various types of computer teaching. Success comes more easily in the rule based hard sciences. The ones that work teach one small component of a subject, be it Chemistry, Geography Physics or Math and then pose a short test to see how the student has comprehended the session. Based on the answers, he can progress to the next module or be retaught the module with another approach, and again be tested and then proceed, or to a final third session, failure at which should elevate the student to a human teacher or to a more basic module which the failures have indicated may have caused the lack of comprehension in the student. They call this multiple re-entrant and it has been maturing for 10-15 years now, and it is quite good. It does the same thing that a real teacher does, with infinite patience and has the ability to handle the entire class at varying rates, and leave the slower ones to the staff.
The method is not as good in drama, or music, or the many softer subjects.

We are far beyond the original teaching applications that emerged in the middle 80’s which were not re-entrant and were hobbled both by processor power and lack of proper programming.

Back in the middle80’s (I retired in 1998) the teaching union, of which I was a member, was very much against any degree of computers used to seemingly replace teachers in classes. Teachers were mixed on this, some thought it had potential. The union brass saw job losses and lower wages and have opposed on this basis alone ever since, as far as I can see.

We are now at the point where computers can help enormously and try to bring all the students forward as well as their ability – which varies widely, some can open a book and progress in grade 10 as well as a College student – others not.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: To: Bill Jackson, Nov 5th, 2011 @ 12:02pm, Common Cartridges.

Well, in the humanities, the right use of computers is in setting up the logistics of encounters which would otherwise not be feasible, for example:


Similarly, one major weakness of the “pen pal” system of language learning was simply the delays involved in exchange of postal letters, and the inherent lack of spontaneity in formal writing. These can obviously be rectified by electronic means. There can be webcam-pals or whatever. Of course, it would have to be organized on a school-to-school basis to be practical. Again, there might be problems in the case of the Spanish language, because Americans who want to learn Spanish tend to want to do so for all the wrong reasons, in a colonial mentality. They do not envision visiting Spain, so much as employing Mexicans.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Why are text books so costly.

There is massive conflict of interest between the textbook publishers, the schools(bookstores) and some profs who write the books and get huge royalties for books that cost well below $10 to print, and even less to e-book.

There is no incentive for this to change, except for the open text idea, which is being fought hammer and tongs by the publishers, the SChools(most of them) and the profs(who like the gravy)
So change must be imposed

pjcamp (profile) says:

it is only partly lack of market forces

The main effect on textbook pricing (and all other book pricing) was the Thor Power Tools decision, explained here:


better than I ever could. Thor v. IRS is responsible for dramatically reducing print runs (thereby losing economies of scale) and dramatically shrinking editorial cycles (thereby increasing costs in a major way). Both of these, in turn, almost killed the used book market, which is a ghost of its former self.

I lived through that change. My intro physics book, Halliday and Resnick, cost $22 in 1977. It was the second edition. The first had been published in 1963. Today, physics texts are on a three year revision cycle, and fast changing fields like astronomy are revised every two years. Mostly, these revisions involve changing problem numbers and other trivia.

Mass market books changed in a similar way at the same time for the same reasons. Back lists essentially disappeared. Prices jumped from an average 75 cents for a mass market paperback to around $3. You can’t plausibly attribute that to market forces since it preceded the mergers and acquisitions of the 90’s.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: it is only partly lack of market forces--Technological Factors.

Over the last forty years or so, there has been a steady incursion of computers, and electronics, and photographic processes (offset, Xerox, etc.) into the printing and publishing industries. The eventual trend has been toward print on demand, but in the mean time, there has been a decreasing cost of putting out multiple small print runs instead of one big print run; putting out multiple editions; and even trying out new books altogether. The main point about textbooks is that the publishers proliferated new editions because they could, because, obviously, a new edition does not have to compete with used copies. Naturally, the professor and his teaching assistants get free copies of everything they need, inclusive of examinations, lecture aids, and what have you, so they don’t mind edition changes, and new editions tend to keep cribbing within bounds. The same factors which restrict the availability of used textbooks also restrict the availability of copies of graded homework and exams from previous terms or years.

The “big money” courses tend to contain students whom the professors feel a difficulty in identifying with. For example, in mathematics, the single biggest course, by a wide margin, is College Algebra, which is just another name for High-School Trigonometry or Pre-Calculus. If you did AP Calculus, you were running two years ahead of the kind of people who take College Algebra, and tended not to feel very much common ground with them. Of course, under modern conditions, with computers and the internet, people who are really good at math, say at the 95th percentile or so, can be expected to polish off ordinary differential equations and vector calculus before they get to college. The tendency of progress is to reach a state where any math course taught to someone who is not a math major is, by definition, remedial. It takes a certain mental leap to start worrying about whether “those people” are paying too much for their textbooks.

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