This is the last in a three-part series on the potential cost savings of OER.
In part 1, I established that the cost of print was not a very significant cost savings. (A bit more on that below.) In part 2, I looked at the development costs of multiple publishers and the savings that could result if just one program were purchased by all schools (which brings up many more questions.) In this final part 3, I’ll look at some other possible areas of cost savings.
Print vs. electronic distribution – At somewhere between $100 and $200 for a student computing device, the economics become feasible to do one-to-one implementations in K-12 schools. This would enable printed versions of textbooks to be replaced electronic ones, thereby eliminating printing and distribution costs. Some have maintained that over a several year period, this would save considerable amounts of money. I think that the costs might break even, but given obsolescence and other costs like support, it is doubtful that money would be saved.
Another option would be to allow students to use computing devices that they already have, namely cell phones. While this could save money and improve educational opportunities for students, it is unlikely to be embraced by schools for policy and control reasons.
Ancillaries – Currently, the model most textbook publishers follow is to give away extensive ancillary packages with a textbook sale. Many states, such as Texas, encourage this by specifying a set maximum price for textbooks but allowing additional ancillary components to be given away. Of course, nothing is “free” though, and the cost of these increasingly expensive ancillaries must be factored into student textbook prices. This problem is exacerbated by schools who, enticed by glitzy and voluminous ancillaries, tend to “buy by the pound,” thereby encouraging publishers to produce more and more, driving book prices up and up.
In many classrooms, it is easy to find boxes and boxes of unused and even unopened ancillary components. Conversely, I have talked to many other teachers and administrators who have wanted to buy only the ancillaries (especially electronic ones), but have been “forced” to take the textbooks as well.
The answer to this problem is for states to ask publishers to uncouple the pricing of student textbooks and ancillaries and to prompt schools to choose what they want to purchase based on real costs. The state of Florida is doing just that. It will be interesting to see what results, but I would predict lower prices for purchases that are more educationally appropriate (and actually used).
Materials that could be marketed across states – Textbooks for the largest states, e.g. Texas, California, and Florida, are developed for those states’ specific standards and adoption requirements. Another “national edition” is then produced for other non-adoption and smaller states. If one version were able to be sold to a larger market, costs for everyone would be lower. The much-maligned Common Standards initiative could be one path to this. However, even with this, states have considerable latitude to include their own unique standards (up to 20%). Also, not all states have signed onto Common Standards, with one of the largest textbook-purchasing states, Texas, being a notable holdout.
Another way to accomplish savings in this area would be for states to collaborate on developing common specifications for a reduced price textbook that could be used by all. See below for more on this.
Another potential approach would be to create materials that are more modular and can be remixed at a state, district, school, or classroom to address different standards or different student needs. This is what OER is all about, and in addition to improving instruction, it could save money.
Closer participation of states in the development process – Currently, adoption states issue a call for textbooks to which publishers respond. The call may or may not reflect the needs or preferences of the actual school districts who will be making the final purchase decision. The calls often leave publishers with many questions about what will be acceptable or desirable in the state’s adoption committee’s eyes. Publishers spend a huge amount of money just to submit an offering to be considered; this offering may or may not be accepted. Even if it is, it is possible that no schools may ever purchase it.
While to some extent, this is the peril of competing in an open market in textbook publishing, it is very expensive and very risky to compete. The result is that smaller players are effectively prohibited from taking part, and larger players must charge a premium to cover their risk. (Another result is that schools often report not having access to the kind of instructional materials they really want.) This is not cost effective for end users or for the taxpayers who fund textbook purchases. If the states were to take a bigger role in helping publishers to understand what they really want AND to lower the risk to smaller players, the market would benefit.
Some specific examples of how the former might take place would be through state co-development projects or state and district participation in the actual development of materials. Examples of the latter would be to eliminate high performance bonds that must be paid before the adoption and to ease the burden of sampling and use of textbook depositories.
Improvement the first time around instead of expensive interventions – Hundreds of millions of dollars are going into costly interventions to remedy the achievement crises in schools today. Beyond that, it is impossible to calculate the financial burden of high school drop-out rates. If instruction were more effective and engaging, a lot of this expenditure could be avoided. While the challenges our schools face are certainly too large to be solved by differentiation and OER alone, their effective use could certainly make a huge difference.