By Jared Council
Tidewater Community College is getting closer to becoming the first post-secondary school in the U.S. to offer a textbook-free degree, adopting an alternative resource that experts say may shake up the textbook publishing industry in yet another way and redistribute power among stakeholders - though much remains to be seen.
TCC's pilot program, to commence this fall, is based on free, Internet-based open educational resources, also known as OERs.
The pilot is only for business administration majors and will allow students to forgo buying books for those classes.
"A student pursuing an associate's degree in business administration on an OER path could save as much as $3,678," said Daniel DeMarte, TCC's vice president for academic affairs, adding that that's a savings of about 25 to 30 percent.
"That's a big deal," he said.
The initiative is called Open TCC, and the school has contracted with Portland, Ore.-based Lumen Learning to help implement it.
Business administration students won't be required to go the OER route, school officials said.
DeMarte got the idea from Lumen founder David Wiley at a chancellor's planning retreat in August. School officials then ran the concept by faculty members, who in turn embraced it.
"If we don't have faculty who think it's possible and were willing to take a look at it," DeMarte said, "I wasn't willing to take it any further."
Since then, faculty members have been vetting and selecting content, while school officials have worked on logistical items such as process and assessment models.
Lumen has been training faculty and "scrubbing" selected content to ensure usage is legally compliant, TCC officials said.
"The crowd that goes to community colleges, they're probably the first generation in their family to go to college," said Wiley, who is in discussions with two other community colleges. "They need more help than anybody, so that's why we work primarily with community colleges."
Barnes & Noble College Booksellers Inc., TCC's official bookstore partner, did not respond to requests for comments.
DeMarte said officials there are aware of TCC's move, and he suspects they're trying to fully assess what it will mean for their business model.
The school has 150 academic and training programs, most of which are textbook-based.
DeMarte wouldn't disclose how much TCC will pay for the Lumen's services.
But the funds used, he said, aren't tied to any price increases for students.
Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the National Association of College Stores, said textbooks make up the biggest chunk of college store revenue.
He said in 2011, the latest year of data, textbook sales accounted for $5.8 billion of the $10.2 billion industry.
Open educational resources may change that, but Schmidt said stores shouldn't be the only ones concerned.
"Profit goes back [to the school] to help the students in the form of scholarships, help cover lab fees," Schmidt said. "Say the college goes to an OER on the intro- to-math book. All right, well, how many thousands of dollars did that bring in last year? You're not going to have that this year."
Matt Reed, vice president of academic affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, said his school is exploring utilizing OERs.
He acknowledged that declining college store sales means less school revenue.
But if that happens, he said, so be it.
"If OER pays off the way I think it will in the sense of improving student success rates, then whatever bookstore revenue we lose we'll more than make up in increased tuition revenue from students not flunking out," Reed said. "I'd much rather go that route as opposed to 'milk them for all they're worth, then they bail.' I don't like that model at all."
The most recent NACS survey, from 2008, estimated that about 77.4 cents of every dollar from textbook sales went to publishers. Peter Shea, an Albany University associate professor of informatics who studies higher education, said technologies like Amazon.com, self-publishing and more have been disturbing the conventional bookselling model over the past several years.
"OERs are one facet of the traumatic struggles that are occurring as a result of the disruption caused by Internet-based technologies," Shea said.
Andi Sporkin, vice president of communications with the Association of American Publishers, said many member publishers already have digital technologies and some have delved into OERs.
She mentioned Pearson, which has developed an OER-based site called Project Blue Sky, as one example, though she wasn't aware of how it makes money.
"The old print traditional textbook is pretty much gone. If people aren't getting into digital they're certainly getting in to customized [products]," she said.
Sporkin expressed confidence in the value that publishers large and small bring to conventional and new content development processes, and said it's too early to tell how big an impact OERs will have on publishers.
"I don't know," she said when asked what OERs are doing to the publishers' business models. "It's in a transitional stage. What I do know is that probably about eight to 10 years ago a number of major nonprofit foundations put a lot of money toward OER development. A lot of that has very quietly ended."
Even as publishers such as Pearson are exploring OERs, Sporkin expressed concerns about them.
She questioned the fact-checking process in OERs, as well as the effectiveness of OER authors in conveying concepts to students.
"What's the quality of the OER material? And the biggest concern is: 'Is it good or good enough?'" she said.
Wiley said the authors produce OER content for a variety of reasons.
"Some people produce content because they can't find what they think is good content out there in the world," Wiley said. "Some people feel like it's a social justice issue, that it's completely immoral and wrong that books cost so much that students can't afford them."
DeMarte said TCC is determined to use material that is on par with or better than what it currently uses.
"If the answer to that was no," he said, "then we go nowhere with this."
Even if quality was sufficient, some have said there are still other issues that OERs pose.
Schmidt, of the NACS, said one is access to computers and reading devices, which may vary widely among students. Another issue has to deal with those devices malfunctioning.
"One of the biggest positives about an e-book, students say, is a lighter backpack," he said, "And one of their greatest fears is you're getting ready to study for finals and you hit the power button and nothing happens."
Schmidt also said students may like to study with multiple books open at once, annotating and highlighting.
He cited a fall 2012 NACS on-campus survey of about 10,500 students that found 77 percent of students prefer print products.
DeMarte said OERs aren't likely to replace all methods of content delivery.
"This may in the end be just another option along the continuum for the student who wants to buy a new book and use it for life or rent a book or not have to buy a book at all."
Kimberly Bovee, who is associate vice president for strategic learning initiatives at TCC, said one of the greatest advantages of OERs is the fact that instructors can start with learning outcomes and find a variety of sources to help achieve that as opposed to starting with a textbook and basing learning outcomes on what's available.
"When they keep their eye on that learning outcome, much of what is traditionally in a textbook isn't necessarily needed," Bovee said. "It becomes much more focused, much clearer, much more direct."
Bovee said the school is scheduling student orientation and Lumen will help analyze and tweak the program as it grows.
She said Open TCC is likely here to stay, or else it wouldn't have made it this far.
As OERs carve out a niche, industry experts said, companies are mulling over their responses.
The staying power of OERs is strong, Reed and others have said, and its potential is great.
"The movie industry didn't start by making movies as we know them; it started by filming plays," Reed said. "Only later did they realize that movie cameras can do things other than just record plays.
"I think right now OER is in the filming-a-play stage, where they're taking the textbook model and imitating it - which is a perfectly valid first step."nib