Customization and the (Part-time) Educator

I remember a conversation with an educational publishing executive I had ten years ago, when I first started Akademos. At the time, I was enamored with the idea that emerging technologies allow for new ways to customize course materials. Print on demand capabilities, for instance, even back then were at a point where one could imagine each instructor becoming the editor of his or her own anthology—not simply a classroom reader but an actual paper-bound or even hard cover collection. A lot of my enthusiasm stemmed from my experience at Cornell. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently the Cornell bookstore was a pioneer in creating custom course materials (whereas I thought it was available most places). Teaching there both as a grad student and then briefly as a professor, I made good use of the service. So when I approached the publishing executive, I had a lot of excitement about what the latest technology could do in this area.

This executive, though, quickly brought some sobriety to my enthusiasm. “Custom materials,” he said, “make up perhaps 3% of class room materials. And you’d like to grow that to, say, 5% or 6%? It’s a boutique business.” The vast majority of course materials, he argued, will remain traditional textbooks for organizational rather than technical reasons: most faculty simply want the materials pre-packaged.

I think about that conversation now because, ten years on, we are in the midst of an explosion of course content through all-digital channels. As online and hybrid (online/classroom) teaching increase, the third party resources that support them are multiplying. Organizations such as MERLOT support this growth through peer-reviewing available academic content from online sources. And beyond just the content, faculty also have an ever-growing collection of widgets and learning “bots” to choose from.

This explosion of choices, though, presupposes that faculty are willing and able to customize the courses. If custom course materials are a “boutique” enterprise, why should we expect faculty suddenly to embrace customization through online resources and content?

Moreover, while learning resources multiply, there is another trend—one that’s been long in the making, to be sure—toward hiring part-time adjunct instructors that seems to me to be somewhat in tension with this multiplicity of content choice.

Ten years ago about half of faculty were full time—either tenured or tenure track;(in 1960 it was about 75%). Today it’s about 27%. As a Times article from earlier this year makes clear, this is a trend that has only accelerated because of the economic downturn. The vast majority of higher education teaching, then, is by adjuncts, lecturers, graduate students, and the like. They are paid by the course and often have workloads that bring them to multiple institutions in a teaching week. As result, the preparation time part time faculty have is often less than that of full timers. If there were a single reason why one ought to look dimly on custom course materials, this would be it.

Interestingly, custom textbook publishing has indeed taken off in the last several years; in fact there are few major textbooks that do not also have custom editions associated with them. But it is generally the publishers rather than the faculty who customize these books. Publishers brand books for particular schools, perhaps include a course syllabus, and add other content; faculty are usually at most peripherally involved. And those who do participate in these efforts are almost always part of that ever-shrinking minority of full time faculty.

While one can always debate the relative merits of part-time versus full time faculty, what’s clear is that a market shift has occurred that is no less inexorable than the rise of digital resources. A pressing question, for administrators especially, is how to negotiate these shifts in such a way that the school can benefit from the multiplicity of choice and do so in a context that fits the needs of the school.

No doubt the market will recognize these needs and it could be that the next wave of innovation in this area will focus on assimilating and returning in digestible, usable form compilations of these materials and sources—perhaps, that is, we’re on the threshold of realizing a custom course content shop where choices are not limited to a collection of imprints available from a single publisher but which is truly open to the world. A boutique, in other words, that is of quite a different order.

In a follow up post, I will discuss other ways of navigating through these issues and look at the opportunities the emerging resources create for faculty and administrators alike.

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HEOA: Triumph of the Alternative

If you’re a college student or the parent of one who pays for her books, here’s a reason to celebrate with fireworks a little early: Today marks the day that the Higher Education Equal Opportunity Act goes into effect. While the federal legislation covers a range of issues associated with the costs of post secondary education, what’s particularly noteworthy is the requirement that higher ed. institutions of all kinds are required to publish course book lists (including the ISBNs) in their course catalogs and registration in order to help students and parents shop around for the best purchasing options.

Non-compliance puts in jeopardy federal funding of any type the school or its students receive, and so these institutions have scrambled right up until today’s deadline to meet the requirements. (Schools that we work with are already in compliance because our service includes an integrated course catalog and book list with all the required information).

While this important legislation is a significant boon to students and parents, one ought also to view it as a reflection on how much the textbook industry has changed recently because of the internet.

Online marketplaces are flourishing, the pool of used books for sale or rent online is expanding, students are saving vast sums of money, and innovative alternative textbook companies are rapidly emerging that significantly challenge the old way of doing business.

These changes started years ago and have been catalyzed by a weak economy. With about a third of students not buying books because of cost, with the cost of textbook rising for more than a decade at about twice the rate of inflation, with greater numbers of students—especially those seeking second careers—struggling to finance an education, the pressure has been building for some time. And, aided by enterprising online companies, students have taken matters into their own hands—they, and not the traditional vendors, have been driving the textbook marketplace.

And so when we think of HEOA we should really view it, as much as anything, as the triumph of alternative ways of accessing course materials—alternatives that, as such, reduce costs, make education more affordable, and facilitate pedagogy by helping to ensure that students are able to come to class with the required materials. The law is meaningful, important, therefore, because the old textbook model is broken and is quickly being replaced. Indeed, if the successes of the alternative were not so impressive, there would be little point to the law.

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