Fewer than 50 percent of the students at Virginia State University (VSU) have the means to purchase the textbooks needed for their courses. Even with the odds stacked against them, some complete their courses, albeit with great difficulty. Others, sadly, fail. Many students have convinced themselves that they can get along without the textbooks, and some borrow books from friends. Instructors, sensitive to the needs of financially strapped students, place copies on reserve in the library. But none of these three approaches is completely reliable, and students soon fall behind, only to drop or fail the course.
“This is a tragic waste of student resources since they are paying for the classes and will sometimes pay for the same class multiple times. This is a vicious cycle, and the students ultimately lose out. I am looking to break this cycle, not just place a Band-Aid on it,” says Dr. Mirta M. Martin, dean of the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business and professor of management, Virginia State University, and the commonwealth’s first Latina dean.
Frustrated with stories about students performing poorly because they could not afford textbooks, Martin made a pledge that no needy student would go without a textbook. She asked community officials and others to donate to a fund that would purchase books for students who needed financial assistance.
Martin’s plan yielded $4,000 worth of books for needy students. But to Martin, this was just the Band-Aid of which she spoke. To find a more permanent solution, she reached out to publishers who offered a bulk rate that would allow the school of business to pay for textbooks for all its students. That’s when she found Flat World Knowledge, a company that offers openly licensed, low-cost, digitally delivered textbooks to students and professors.
“The solution for overpriced textbooks is to make them more affordable, not to find ways to pay for something that has exceeded its value proposition. Flat World materials are a viable solution since the goal is to provide students with highquality content at an affordable price. We looked to Flat World, not because the other option was unsustainable, but because the other option did not offer a real solution to the problem,” she says.
Martin is well on the way of breaking a vicious cycle, one in which students repeatedly pay for courses they have failed because they could not afford the necessary textbooks. Starting this school year, the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business purchased a digital site license for each of its students for Flat World Knowledge textbooks. Each license offers the student openly licensed college textbooks as part of the school’s broad initiative to deliver an integrated core business curriculum to all its students.
Many conventional textbooks cost more than $200, and a typical college student can spend $1,000 or more per school year on textbooks. For those students who are at or below the poverty line, the cost of textbooks is a major obstacle to earning a degree, according to a Public Agenda research report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Martin’s agreement with Flat World Knowledge removes textbook costs as a barrier to higher
Virginia State University is a Historically Black University, and 94 percent of its students receive financial aid, a situation with which Martin can personally identify. Born in Cuba under the Communist regime, she was permitted to leave the island with only her grandmother and sister, leaving behind her father, mother, brothers, grandfathers and other family.
She migrated to Spain and eventually came to America. She spoke no English but did what she needed to do to put food on the table. She went to school full time and worked full time stocking shelves, standing for hours by a tomato-picking assembly line and cleaning houses with her grandmother. She earned 50 cents per hour, bringing home just $20 a week.
Clearly, the financial challenges that Virginia State University students face influenced Martin’s decision to enter into the agreement with Flat Word Knowledge.
“Just like the Hispanic population, many of my students work in excess of 40 hours per week to support their families or themselves. They often have to ask themselves, ‘Do I purchase a textbook or do I send money home to help my family, or which book do I purchase so I can still send money home?’ Family always wins, and for that, I admire them. I need to break the cycle and put textbooks in their hands,” she says.
Martin’s textbook agreement with Flat World Knowledge will not only make a college education more affordable to her students, it plays a key role in the business school’s revolution of excellence, a goal to increase retention and graduation rates through technology-based solutions.
“A college degree is essential in today’s world, and too many of our students are frustrated in their efforts to obtain that degree because, as they plan for the cost of their education, they factor in tuition and living expenses but don’t necessarily understand how much of an impact textbook costs will have,” says Martin. As a result of these unplanned costs, students have to choose between going without certain textbooks or working longer hours to pay for the books. Either choice can be disastrous.
Many students are confronted with a Catch 22. If they work too many hours, they will not have the time to study, and if they don’t buy the textbooks, they will not have the materials with which to study. “No one wins when the students don’t have access to the tools and materials necessary for their education,” says Martin.
For years, many have wondered why the cost of textbooks has not been included in a student’s tuition or living expenses, Martin being one of them. She says that institutions and their business models have been in place for a long time, and campus bookstores have traditionally shouldered the burden of the costs associated with administering textbook sales and maintaining inventory. “This has been convenient for universities and created a niche for bookstores,” says Martin.
But it is only since the cost of textbooks began to rise precipitously that institutions started to question this model. “As we rethink the process – institutions of higher learning, not just VSU – perhaps we need to consider including textbooks in tuition costs. This, however, raises other possible issues. The cost of course content needs to come down; in other words, we cannot continue to raise tuition to meet the demands of rising costs of textbooks at the expense of parents or students. If that cost is somehow ‘hidden’ in the price of tuition, we haven’t solved the problem; we have only obscured it from view. In the end, the real issue is we’re living in the 21st century and we need to learn to use 21st-century technologies to deliver knowledge in an efficient, effective and affordable manner,” says Martin. And one of those 21st-century technologies is the Internet. Open-licensed textbooks, such as those offered by Flat World Knowledge, are delivered over the Internet (among other devices) and provide a lower-cost alternative to traditional textbooks. If a traditional textbook costs $150 and a student takes 15 credit hours, the student could end up spending $750 per semester on textbooks alone. A Flat World seat license is $20 per course.
If open-licensed textbooks are available for all courses a student takes, he or she would save $650 per semester or $1,300 per year. “This would mean 180 fewer hours, or four and a half weeks of full-time, minimum wage employment that a student would need to work and could devote to their studies,” says Martin.
The numbers she quotes are a conservative estimate because many of the business textbooks, especially the accounting textbooks, cost in excess of $200. “I believe my students have the talent, intellect and ability to succeed, but they did not have the proper resources. Using this innovative digital approach to the delivery of knowledge, we believe, will have a direct impact on student success and retention. I can tell you it already has had an impact on their morale,” she says.
Under the agreement, Virginia State University will purchase seat licenses for students enrolled in eight courses in the core business curriculum, with VSU adding more courses next year. In its standard model, Flat World Knowledge offers free access to its textbooks only while students are online. If students want to download a copy to their own computers, they must pay $24.95 for a PDF, and a print edition will set them back about $30. But the publisher offered the business school a bulk rate of $20 per student per course, and it will allow students at the school to download not only the digital copies but also the study guide, audio version or iPad edition, a bundle that would typically cost about $100.
Flat World’s licensing model approaches textbooks as intellectual property that can be delivered in a variety of formats for greater convenience and at a more affordable price. VSU students and faculty will have choices to access and use the texts in ways that aren’t possible with conventional textbooks sold under a traditional publishing business model. Students can read their textbooks in the format that best fits their individual learning style. The pre-paid license includes Web, PDF, audio and e-reader versions for the iPad, Kindle and other e-readers. Online and interactive study aids are also included. Students with print disabilities will have access to the texts in DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) and BRF (Braille Ready Format) formats.
Accessibility, says Martin, is a major feature when one is delivering digital content, emphasizing that Flat World textbooks are not merely e-books. “Many publishers offer e-books at a reduced cost alternative to their print textbooks, but access and use is still limited. E-books are read online; requiring Internet access. Flat World textbooks can be delivered in a variety of ways and do not require continuous Internet access,” says Martin.
That means that a student can download a textbook in mobi [mobile read] format and read the text on a Kindle. The student can read that same file on a laptop using a free Kindle application. Those who wish to print out individual chapters can download PDF versions of the files, giving them the option of storing these files on a flash drive. They can print these files as necessary. “Either way, they can carry their textbooks on lightweight, portable devices,” says Martin.
For those auditory learners, Flat World textbooks are also available as podcasts, which can be downloaded to iTunes. Students can listen to the texts as they walk, jog, work out or drive. “Digital delivery increases the flexibility and the accessibility of the material. It is also comforting to think that a student who mistakenly leaves a textbook at school over Thanksgiving break can go online and access the material to study for the final exam,” says Martin.
The digital files do not have an expiration date, nor are they encumbered with digital rights management (DRM) copy-protection, giving students unprecedented freedom to transfer the content from device to device for as long as they wish, even after they graduate. For students who prefer the more traditional physical book, soft-cover textbooks are also available to VSU students for $30.
But it’s not only the VSU business students who will benefit from these digitally delivered materials. Unlike an all-rights-reserved copyright license, Flat World Knowledge’s Creative Commons license transfers control of the textbook content to VSU’s faculty and provides online editing tools that allow faculty to customize and tailor a textbook to meet their individual teaching goals. Currently, professors can reorder chapters and sections of chapters and delete material they deem irrelevant. Professors can also annotate specific parts of the book, clarifying or highlighting certain material. They can also add updated examples to the textbook, keeping them fresh.
“Once a professor makes the changes, his or her customized textbook will reflect those changes. This means that the book his or her students read will contain those changes in any of the print formats they access or download. ... This technology is changing, and more and more options for customization are becoming available,” says Martin.
While the university is covering the initial roll-out costs for this school year, moving forward VSU will look at various options to transfer the license costs to students. The university is exploring ways in which it can continue to offer digitally delivered textbooks in an affordable and reliable manner. However, Martin believes that the students might expect to be responsible for the cost of the seat license times the number of classes they are taking in a given semester. “Still, $200 for the year or $20 times 10 courses per academic year is far better than the $1,500 to $2,000 they are now expected to pay,” she says.