Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dealing with Pricey Textbooks and the Digital Divide

A couple of interesting approaches to dealing with expensive textbooks from the Sate of Washington. The first endeavors to develop online materials for the community college system's 81 highest-enrolled courses. Realizing that many students do not have a computer or Internet access, other initiative aims to allow low-income students to rent netbooks for $35 a quarter. The students can download e-textbooks and online materials developed in the first initiative.

With the price of a typical netbook, the students might be better served by a rent-to-own model or by making a computer mandatory, so that financial aid can pay for it. One issue not addressed by these two initiatives is the scarcity of high-speed Internet access in some under-served areas. I'd love to see a more holistic approach that combines low-cost course materials, devices, and, high-speed Internet access.

State of Washington to Offer Online Materials, Instead of Textbooks, for 2-Year Colleges:
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.

Textbooks? So Last Century. Rent a Netbook Instead:
For many students, heading to class without a laptop is a bit like leaving the house without wearing pants. And whether it's registering for classes, meeting with professors, or doing homework, chances are those aspects of college now involve a computer and the Internet.

Yet according to a 2010 survey by the Census Bureau, while Internet use is creeping up, 30 percent of Americans are not online —not at home, not at work. And it's not always by choice.
Low-income students are not just on an uneven playing field, says Kristen Connely, manager of the bookstore at Bellevue College, the largest community college in Washington State. Without technology, they can't even get into the stadium.

In November, with help from a U.S. Department of Education grant, Bellevue bought 500 netbooks—inexpensive laptops used to download and read Internet material—to rent out for $35 per quarter. Negotiations are still continuing with publishers, but the cost of the e-textbooks used on the devices can be half that of traditional books. Students will also be able to download low-cost digital course materials being developed by the state's Open Course Library project.

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