UMass Amherst promotes the adoption of open textbooks through grants


Are grants the spark needed to ditch traditional textbooks? Credit: Kenneth Johnson C. on Flickr.

As reported on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced a grant process to lower the cost of textbooks for students.

Eight faculty members were awarded a total of 10 grants, $1,000 per course, to adopt a new curricular resource strategy using easily identified digital resources. Under the program, faculty developed a variety of alternatives, from creating an online open access lab manual to utilizing e-books and streaming media available through the Libraries’ numerous databases.

I think this is a very smart idea, especially considering that it’s not simply a matter of adopting open textbooks, but to promote the use of materials already purchased by the library. Reducing the cost of learning materials is not only about going totally free, it’s about “aiming” for free, but doing it realistically.

This initiative should have an immediate impact for students.

During the 2011-2012 academic year, it is estimated this $10,000 investment will save 700 students more than $72,000 – money that would have been spent on commercial textbooks for these courses.

It seems to me that $1,000 is not a lot of money considering the work involved in exploring, curating, and developing learning materials. It’s probably more symbolic that anything else. But still, it could be a pretty cost effective low-hanging fruit approach that can nudge the institution in the right direction.

Any comment on this? Is money really required, are there other incentives you or colleagues would be interested in, or is “textbook affordability” a topic that stands for itself?


Georgia Tech shuts down public wikis over FERPA concerns

Credit: Bart Everson on Flickr

An interesting and disturbing decision was made by officials at Georgia Tech. They have decided to take down all student content from a GT-hosted wiki platform called Swiki after declaring that information disclosed on the openly available wiki infringed the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). That wiki initiative was one of the first ever, period. It started in 1997. As explained in a blog post by Mark Guzdial, professor in the School of Interactive Computing:

Georgia Tech’s interpretation of FERPA is that protected information includes the fact that a student is enrolled at all.  The folks at GT responsible for oversight of FERPA realized that a student’s name in a website that references a course is evidence of enrollment.  Yesterday, in one stroke, every Swiki ever used for a course was removed.  None of those uses I described can continue.  For example, you can’t have cross-semester discussions or public galleries, because students in one semester of a course can’t know the identities of other students who had taken the course previously.

Comments to the post show a lot of support and concern over this interpretation of FERPA, and many fear that it will spread to other institutions and shut down their own initiatives.  Tom Hoffman’s comment states that “this sort of interpretation of FERPA is more common in K-12.”

Do you think GT’s reaction is appropriate? Is this the beginning of the end for educational practices where students post their work publicly, or are there ways you can think of that would be still be acceptable under GT’s conditions?

Indiana University Students Will Have Access To E-Texts For Less

The promise of cost-cutting electronic textbooks is far from becoming reality. Although they are usually cheaper than their paper counterparts, they also have serious restrictions attached to them, the most important one being an expiry date.

Indiana University announced a couple of weeks ago that they successfully negotiated an agreement with leading e-text publishers to cut costs and increase access for students.

Under the new terms, the publishers will provide students substantial cost savings, the ability to access digital or printed hard copies, and uninterrupted access to all of their e-texts while they’re students at IU.

The downside is that students are now forced to accept a digital materials fee.

In return for giving substantial discounts and reduced e-text restrictions, the publishers will gain a guaranteed e-text fee from each student who is enrolled in a course section that adopts a particular digital textbook. IU students will be informed before registering for classes whether a particular section will use digital materials and charge a fee.

So students can no longer wing it by borrowing a friend’s book, going to the library, etc. They have to pay the fee to take the class. I can see how such a deal might appeal to publishers, who can anticipate the revenue from adoption for resources that are digital (i.e. infinitely scalable). I can also see a benefit to the instructor who can now safely assume that every student has access to the course materials as soon as class begins.

In addition to the deal with publishers, IU also adopted Courseload, a text annotation platform that integrates in Sakai.

The e-textbook application will allow students to tag the digital content, perform searches, collaborate as a study group, and view multimedia on any computer or mobile device. Additionally, faculty who opt to use the software will have the ability to integrate notes, links, and annotations on students’ e-texts.

Do you think we could envision something like this for UD? How could this happen, and would would need to get on board?

Rant Against Academic Publishers Cites Self-Publishing As A Potential Solution

Credit: Anna Creech on Flickr

A recent article on the Guardian website by George Monbiot is making waves in social media. Monbiot claims that publicly-funded research should be available for free, not through expensive subscription or pay-per-article models.

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

He also makes a point that the general public is kept out of the debate by those barriers.

It’s bad enough for academics, it’s worse for the laity. I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can’t afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

I’d like to get your opinion on this topic. Are publishers of academic journals the tyrants described by Monbiot? Would you be willing to only publish to journals who make the articles available online for free, or simply self-publish your own articles?

Teachers Fight Back Against Missouri’s New Social Media Law

The state of Missouri has passed a law to prevent teachers from friending students on social media sites.

Senate Bill 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, aims to fight inappropriate contact between students and teachers, including protecting children from sexual misconduct by their educators. It is named after a Missouri public school student who was repeatedly molested by a teacher several decades ago.

This bill explicitly mentions that teachers cannot have private conversations with students over the internet, including text messaging.

Teachers will still be able to have a Facebook Page for interacting with students on a slightly more personal level, as long it’s still work-related. It’s the actual friending, messaging, and whatever other direct connection you can make on a social network that will not be allowed.

The actual section of the law:

SECTION 162.069 – By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.

This seems to be a very drastic measure to control a few misbehaving adults, who will probably still find other ways to misbehave. It also prevents teachers from friending ex-students until they turn 18 (wouldn’t those teenage years the ones students could use a strong adult presence amongst their friends?).

The Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) has filled a lawsuit to fight this law, stating it is unconstitutional and confusing. I’d like to hear both sides of the story here:

1) As a parent, does this law make sense? Would it protect children from abuse?

2) As an educator, would you be ok with the conditions set in this law?

UPDATE – Here are some more links on this story: