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In an advanced University of Cincinnati class, associate professor of psychology Charles Ginn assigned a take-home midterm.
Two questions on the test asked students to relate the material they studied to their lives. The third question was objective.
In PowerPoints, Ginn clearly covered what they needed to know to answer the question. And he told them what page they needed to study in the textbook.
But 30 percent of the students gave the same wrong answer that had nothing to do with the coursework. Ginn asked the class what happened. A student cautiously raised his hand. "I googled," he said.
They copied and pasted an answer without reading it because they couldn't afford expensive textbooks. As a result, they got an "F" on the midterm. And Ginn started thinking about textbooks.
At the University of Cincinnati, Ginn is leading a team this fall that's searching for more cost-effective textbooks for "Introduction to Psychology" courses.
By leveraging purchasing power and collaborating with publishers, the university hopes to give students more choices at a much lower price.
Currently, students pay $200 for a new psychology textbook in this course. But Ginn would like to see that number drop to $50 or less.
He envisions professors customizing eTexts with their content. And he envisions students printing eTexts from a kiosk in the campus bookstore. That way, if some students prefer reading a chapter or the full text on paper, they can do so in either black and white or color.
"The idea is not to force everybody into eBooks," Ginn said. "The idea is to give options."
In October and November, a diverse group of 25 students and staff from different campus departments is meeting with six publishers at different times. These publishers include Cengage Learning, Flat World Knowledge, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson, Wiley and Worth Publishers.
Instead of making agreements with publishing representatives on their own, professors who teach the course will meet together with students, staff and publishers. Up front, the publishers have to tell them the price of the product they're pitching.
Everyone asks questions and shares what they think in these meetings. If publishers say they provide materials to disabled students within a week, the disability office representative can verify or challenge that statement based on experience.
Publishers might say their product interacts with Blackboard perfectly. But the learning management system representative would know it requires a separate publisher cartridge that could compromise student information security.
Without these perspectives and price points, professors may just accept the marketing spiel.
Before the psychology midterm incident, Ginn hadn't considered the cost of books when he chose them. The publishing representative provided copies to professors at no charge. And the professors didn't go to the student bookstore or ask how much they actually cost.
Now that he's researched the textbook market, he wants to stop its downward spiral, which goes something like this.
Publishers release a textbook the first semester and receive all the business. By the second semester, the textbooks show up in the used book market where students buy them cheaper. And the publishers and authors don't get their cut.
So they raise prices of the new textbook and publish new editions every three years. If professors require new editions for their courses, they force students to either pay more or go without books.
By changing the way professors adopt "Introduction to Psychology" textbooks, Ginn's team plans to negotiate agreements that benefit students, the university and publishers. And they'll decide which books to choose based on feedback from everyone who's affected by or interested in the decision.
"If there's a reason why it doesn't work, then I want to know before we adopt and not after," Ginn said.
After listening to feedback from students and staff, the seven instructors who teach the course consistently would like to choose a book by late December or early January. In fall 2012, students will use the eTexts in classes.
Across the country, universities are trying to stop this downward spiral by working out agreements for affordable eTexts.
The California State University system provides a digital textbook rental option to students for half a year. Indiana University students can use a common reading and annotation software platform and access eTexts until they graduate. And the University System of Ohio provides Creative Commons-licensed eTexts and lower cost options for "Introduction to Psychology" courses.
In a pilot program that started in March, the Ohio system Board of Regents purchased 1,000 eText licenses from publisher Flat World Knowledge and gave them to seven colleges and universities. At the Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning in November, the system will share usage data from faculty and students.
Along with this newer pilot, the Board of Regents has been working on the Ohio Digital Bookshelf Project for two years. The pilot started to find lower-cost eText options for "Introduction to Psychology," the largest course offered in the state, said Steve Acker, director of the project.
In Ginn's work as a researcher for the bookshelf project, he found that small colleges in the state paid more for the same book than large universities. But by partnering with publishers, the Board of Regents made the same terms available to students at each Ohio college.
If their class used one of the 22 textbooks on the digital bookshelf, students would receive up to 70 percent off the print list price. The board often looks to the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State to see what they're doing and share their ideas with others. And the "Introduction to Psychology" eText that Cincinnati professors pick will appear on the digital bookshelf for other universities to use.
Because of Ginn's work with the bookshelf, he previously had chosen a text from the digital bookshelf. And as a result, his students saved about $168,000 altogether, Acker said.
From the Ohio system level, no one's mandating that faculty members switch to eTexts. That would kill a worthy initiative, Acker said. But it does give them options.
"We're in the position where the cost of higher education and the cost of textbooks are both in the national spotlight, and we need to use that awareness to evaluate lots of different models that can reduce the cost of learning materials to the benefit of students."
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