March 06, 2006

On February 28, 2006, Dr. Martha Kanter, the Chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and I traveled to Sacramento to testify before the California State Assembly Committee on Higher Education about the opportunity to create free public domain textbooks. The Committee was holding an informational hearing to explore potential solutions to the growing problem of rapidly escalating textbook costs. The legislators who attended the session included the influential committee chair, Assemblywoman Carol Liu, our local Assemblyman Ira Ruskin and the Dean of the California legislature, republican leader Tim Leslie.

Our testimony was preceded by an overview presentation from a senior official in the office of the legislative analyst, who covered all the old ideas that have not worked to any significant degree, such as book buyback programs, mandates that instructors use the same book for a period of years, etc. Rather tellingly, his presentation completely overlooked the idea of encouraging the creation and use of public domain textbooks. Dr. Kanter and I received a very warm reception to our presentation about our community college district's recently enacted formal policy (which I originally proposed during my campaign for Trustee in 2003), which encourages the use and adaptation of high-quality public domain materials as free textbook substitutes. Clearly, this was the first time many of those attending had heard about this idea. I think we opened up a lot of minds to the suggestion that in this day and age, with the tools and resources we now have, colleges and universities need to be more deeply involved in building public domain learning materials, not just buildings and facilities. I was particularly pleased by the positive reaction from both sides of the political aisle, with Chairwoman Liu (a democrat) and the republican leader, Leslie, both offering encouraging comments. The lead staffer for the committee indicated he was interested in meeting with us here in our area sometime soon to discuss possible legislation that might help us move things along more quickly. Unfortunately, that meeting was subsequently cancelled but we are hoping it will be re-scheduled in the summer, when legislative leaders are not so busy working on the massive infrastructure bond proposals that are currently occupying most of the attention of legislators and their staff. Here is a link to our District's press release (in .pdf format) about the hearing. A copy of my testimony follows:

Remarks of Hal Plotkin
Vice President, Foothill-De Anza Community College District Governing Board of Trustees
28 February 2006

Thank you, Chairwoman Liu and the members and staff of the California State Assembly Committee on Higher Education for the opportunity to speak with you today about a subject of mutual concern. The rapidly escalating – and in some cases the almost unconscionable -- costs of community college textbooks are now the single biggest financial barrier to access and success imposed on students by our community college system. I say “imposed by our system” deliberately. In essence, our community colleges currently serve as the uncompensated marketing arm of the commercial textbook publishers. As such, our colleges are already quite deeply involved in the textbook business.

Unfortunately, though, at the moment that involvement, from a financial perspective, primarily serves the interests of the publishers – at the direct expense of the community college students the system is supposed to serve.

It is not unusual, during the first week of classes, to see community college students in our District combing through the shelves in our bookstore with a course catalog in hand as they investigate the costs of the books required for different classes. Those costs often determine which courses, and/or how many of them, a student can afford to take. A single calculus textbook on one of our campuses now costs an astonishing $170. Put another way, it takes 25 hours of work for a student earning the minimum wage to earn enough money to pay for that one book assuming, of course, the student spends none of those wages on rent, food, transportation or childcare. As you know, many courses require more than just one book.

These high textbook costs are shutting out – or at least slowing down – the education of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of our fellow California residents. These students are not, however, the only group cheated out of opportunities as a result of the high cost of textbooks. The state of California loses, too, when it fails to develop the full capacities of its residents. On the financial side, the state loses the income, sales and property taxes that would be paid by a more highly educated population, not to mention the increased purchasing power that would otherwise contribute to economic vitality. On the social side, we lose the societal cohesion that exists when young people and others seeking education or retraining can navigate a path to a better future notwithstanding their personal financial circumstances.

Fortunately, a solution, a real solution that will permanently decrease and in some cases fully eliminate, the costs of textbooks for community college students is finally on the horizon. This committee can – and I hope will – play a major role in accelerating progress toward this goal.

But first, let me start at the beginning. As some of you may know, I’ve spent most of the last three decades as a journalist and broadcaster. It was in that role, five years ago, when I first reported on the enormous promise and possibilities of public domain learning materials, a field that has since come to be known as Open Educational Resources, or OER, for short. Let me quote to you from that first report, which was published by the San Francisco Chronicle’s in the Spring of 2001:

"In news that went largely overlooked a few weeks ago, MIT President Charles Vest announced that the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans to make the materials for nearly all of its courses freely available on the Internet over the next 10 years. MIT's decision is an enormous step forward on a path that will eventually bring higher education opportunities within reach of millions of people who now have scant hope of ever attending college.

As the old proverb teaches, "If you give a man a fish he has food for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, he has food for life."

MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative will give the whole world a chance to learn to fish. Schools and other institutions will be free to use MIT's academic materials, including any available classroom lectures or transcripts, without fear of violating copyright rules or other legal requirements…Essentially, MIT is providing educational raw materials that others can fashion into new educational products. It's similar to the way the open-source software movement provides a common set of technical resources that are freely available. The open-source model on which MIT's OpenCourseWare plan is based will help create a new educational eco-system where innovation will be enhanced through the sharing of online resources. The result will be a more dynamic educational structure that invites the type of participation required to keep educational materials about still-developing topics such as biology or computer science current and up to date.

"OpenCourseWare looks counter-intuitive in a market driven world," MIT's Vest said when he signed on to the new plan. "It goes against the grain of current material values. But it really is consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT. It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced -- by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate."

Some scientists say that human beings have an innate desire to learn that is built into our biology, a part of our survival mechanism. This process will be accelerated if MIT's example leads more schools to throw open their digital doors. It's likely that evolutionary forces will continue to slowly whittle away the elitism that characterizes too much of higher education today. Eventually, leaders at the most ambitious schools or other institutions will figure out the best ways to organize and exploit the Internet's free academic resources. The learning instinct will attract people to those resources as surely as the thirsty are led to water.

There has been a considerable amount of progress since I wrote those words. In the five years hence, more than 40 universities around the world, including 20 in China, 11 in Europe, six in Japan and at least four others in the United States, have joined MIT in releasing the courseware used at their schools. Meanwhile, other schools, such as Rice University, have created online repositories of free, high-quality public domain learning objects or modules that can be integrated into courses or textbooks. In addition to these new, high-quality academic resources, the power of the Internet has and is enabling the digitization of a wide variety of pre-existing public domain resources, including textbooks whose copyrights have expired. All books copyrighted prior to 1923 are now in the public domain. Many other books published after that date are also in the public domain, depending on the circumstances of their publication.

Algebra and geometry have not changed a whole lot since 1923. As such, in many cases it is now possible to take these public domain materials, both old and new, and combine and adapt them to serve as substitutes for commercial textbooks. This is true in a wide variety of disciplines. All of Shakespeare’s works, for example, reside in the public domain, as do many other great works of literature. Our community colleges can organize and adapt these materials for use in community college classes and give them to students online entirely free, or in printed versions, for the cost of paper and printing.

In the past, government support of education has typically revolved around paying for the building of schools and providing salaries to educators. In essence, our government paid for the hardware, buildings and teachers, and commercial firms supplied the software, in the form of textbooks.

More recently, the advent of the Internet and the associated creation of a variety of archives and repositories of free, high-quality public domain learning materials have presented government with the opportunity to start constructing a new and different type of higher education resources for public use. How about building a college-level free public domain algebra textbook? Or a free reader featuring significant works of literature? Or a free geometry textbook? The possibilities are literally endless.

What’s more, educators seeking to create, organize or adapt these materials don’t have to start from scratch. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of several of our nation’s leading charitable foundations, most notably the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, there is already a wealth of free public domain learning materials available whose quality and reliability has been fully tested and certified.

To cite one such example, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) recently unveiled an entirely free, fully contained college-level statistics course though its Open Learning Initiative. Working with Foundation grants in excess of a million dollars, a team of statistics professors at CMU joined forces with a group of cognitive scientists to create what many knowledgeable observers say is the single best statistics course in the country, perhaps the entire world. The course is currently up on the web where it can be used free of charge by anyone, anywhere. It contains many features not found in even the best statistics textbooks, including interactive practice tools and quizzes that identify specific deficits in comprehension in order to lead students to the refresher material they need.

Unfortunately, very few community college instructors are taking full advantage of these resources. The reasons are complex. In my estimation, however, most of them boil down to the question of incentives. In this world, we get what we pay for, if we are lucky. There is currently no formal program in place to encourage community college instructors to seek out or use these free, high-quality public domain materials. To be sure, some of our best faculty do so on their own initiative, often on their own time. But imagine what might be possible if faculty knew they had the support of our community college system, including financial support, to learn more about how they can create, find, adapt and use these resources to the benefit of their students.

That is the opportunity currently before us. There are currently approximately 1.1 million community college students in California. Full-time students spend roughly $1,000, on average, per year on textbooks. If we can save these students just 10 percent of that sum annually, and I believe we can easily do at least that within the next two to three years through increased use of public domain learning materials, we will put more than $100 million dollars back into the pockets of California’s community college students. What’s more, as we make additional inroads in the creation and organization of public domain learning materials these savings will increase from year to year. As an added benefit, the use of these materials can also contribute greatly to enhancing the overall quality of education, as best practices in teaching and learning are identified and more rapidly propagated.

For your review, I have attached a representative sample of screen shots from web sites of some of the schools leading this burgeoning Open Educational Resources movement to the written version of this presentation. In addition, I have attached a FAQ, or frequently asked questions document, that I prepared when a policy designed to take advantage of this opportunity, since passed, was under consideration at our Foothill-De Anza Community College District. This FAQ contains answers to many questions you may have about how this evolving field is developing.

Finally, I suspect I don’t have to introduce many of you to our Chancellor, Dr. Martha Kanter, whose leadership in support of California’s community colleges and on behalf of our students is well known to many of you. I am pleased to report that Chancellor Kanter is here with us today to share her perspective on this issue, which has been one of her longstanding concerns.

I thank you for your kind attention.