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“To Be Honest I’m Not Sure If We Have a Textbook”: Undergraduate Access to Course Reading

 Published on June 5, 2019 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Katheryn Wright and Sean Hackney /  “Blue eyes” by svklimkin on Flickr; licensed CC 0 /  1

The Purpose of Education

This article is part of a series that questions and attempts to clarify the overall goal of public education. Responses to this call investigate how the nature and intentions of higher ed have changed over time. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

“My professor shows us slides, but, um, the book is not used at all, and that’s a book that I bought for $200, and that, even though I’m not using it the price is going to go down. I mean, it’s unwrapped, so that right there takes away its value.”

— 2nd year student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Faculty and staff don’t often know how hard it is for students to get their course materials. I’m a library director and professor at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), and I worry about student access to required course readings. Our college is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, and most of the CUNY students I’ve spoken with did not begrudge the need to purchase textbooks and other materials in college. For some students the requirement to pay for course books came as a surprise because in high school, all books are provided for them. However, student budgets were limited, even if they anticipated textbook costs. Students made choices about whether and how to acquire their course reading in part based on their perceived utility of the reading for that course. They evaluated multiple factors, including how — and even whether — the reading was likely to be used by themselves and their instructors in their courses, as well as their own interest in the course.

Many students did not buy their required course readings at the beginning of the semester, and instead waited to attend the first few class sessions to see whether they truly needed to buy the book. One second-semester City Tech student was very concise when describing their strategy for accessing the required reading for one course, telling me “I’ll get it when we use it.” Others pointed out that many instructors shared their lecture slides with students, uploading the slides to the learning management system or providing other digital access, and that the lecture slides essentially replicated the content of their textbooks. For these students the choice was clear: purchasing the textbook would not give them any advantages in their work for the course, so they did not feel compelled to spend money on the textbook.

In both my research into student reading habits and my informal conversations with students, they also considered the implications of ownership. Some told me that they typically bought the books and other course readings, and that they tended to keep those readings after the course had finished. Interest and perceived value also played a role. Students who kept the books for courses in their major program of study often saw a potential need to access those materials again in subsequent courses, which justified their economic investment. While some students did try to sell their books at the end of the semester, others found that selling their books was not worth the effort for the amount of money they were likely to recoup. For other students, renting was a sensible strategy for getting access to their required course materials for the timeframe of the course. Renting books in either print or digital format can be much cheaper than buying books.

Very few students purchased or rented books from the college bookstore if they could avoid it, though some had financial aid packages that required it. Students told me that the bookstore’s prices were generally quite high and also complained that the bookstore sometimes sold out of their textbook before they could buy it. The bookstore would not allow them to return a book if it had the shrinkwrap removed, as the BMCC student quoted above shared about their Biology course. Price is the main reason that students used outside vendors; a Brooklyn College second-year student said that using outside vendors is “easier because you get to compare prices.” However, comparing prices takes time, and it also takes time for books to be delivered in the mail if they are bought online. I have spoken with students about six weeks into our fifteen-week semester, and a Brooklyn College fourth year student noted they were “still waiting on that [textbook] to come.”

In recent years many publishers have promoted a new option: a online platform that bundles together a textbook, homework, quizzes, and tests. A cross between a textbook and a learning management system, publishers have termed these products “inclusive access,” aiming to become a single location for all course materials and student work to take place, and highlighting the ease of this solution for students and faculty. Students must purchase a personalized code from the publisher in order to have access to the course materials, including required homework and tests.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) have produced a recent report on the rise of inclusive access platforms for course materials, and highlight the ways in which these platforms disadvantage students. The CUNY students I spoke with were universally opposed to — and dissatisfied with — these platforms. Course codes are often expensive, as much as multiple hundreds of dollars each. Each online platform is somewhat different, which requires students to learn a new interface with every new online platform they’re assigned. Of most concern, students cannot sell back the access code after their course ends, nor can they buy a code from a prior student; the library cannot provide access codes either. A City Tech student in their third year at the college summed up student concerns: “you have to buy the class, basically pay for the class […] you had to pay, there’s no way to go around it.”

Beyond buying or renting their textbooks, students told me of a variety of ways to get access to the course readings without having a copy of the book for themselves. Students used library reserve books, though those who wanted to photocopy or scan and print pages from reserve books noted the cost involved in doing so. Some borrowed course books from their local public library, if possible; they may have used their neighborhood library extensively in high school. Others borrowed a textbook from a friend or sibling who had taken the same class in the past, like the first-year student at Brooklyn College who said “my brother actually took [Chemistry] before so he just had it.” They did note, however, that their brother’s edition of the textbook was not the current edition assigned by their professor.

Many of the CUNY students I spoke with who chose not to buy their textbooks were very inventive in getting access to their readings. They used their smartphone camera to take photos of relevant pages in books borrowed from the library or a classmate’s. They sought out free, often pirated, versions of their assigned textbooks online, and one told me that a classmate found a free version of the textbook online and shared it with the class. A Brooklyn College second year student exemplified this range of strategies: “If I need to I’d get copies from my friends, normally I just take pictures if it’s something I can’t find electronically, because there are various ways of Googling to find, even if it’s just a snippet of the material.” CUNY students were inventive and persistent in finding ways to acquire their required course readings. Exploring their experiences adds detail and nuance to the conversation around affordability and access in higher education.

Textbook Affordability and Access in the U.S.

There are many reasons why a college student may not do the reading for a course, however, students who don’t have access to the books and other course materials will not be able to complete their required reading assignments. Textbook affordability is covered frequently by higher-education news media in the United States, part of the broader conversation about access to American colleges and universities. The National Survey of Student Engagement has reported that 31% of first year and 40% of senior undergraduates didn’t purchase required course materials because of the expense. Student loan debt has also risen in recent years, and many undergraduates report difficulties in securing basic needs, including food and housing.

Before the spread of the consumer internet, college students typically purchased print textbooks at the campus bookstore or bought them used from other students, reselling those they did not wish to keep at the end of the semester. The internet and proliferation of digital devices and media have changed the textbook landscape enormously in the past few decades, though textbook publishing remains a captive market. Publishers have long been able to issue new editions frequently (and, sometimes, unnecessarily), depressing the market for used books as they maintain their profits. Access options like renting textbooks — both print and digital — and online course platforms with an integrated textbook, homework, and quiz/test bank have proliferated. The rapid rise in textbook prices is a serious concern; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that consumer prices for college textbooks increased by 88% between 2006 and 2016.

Cost is certainly a major factor in decisions that undergraduates make about how (and whether) to acquire their required course readings, but it’s not the only factor. In my work on students’ experiences with their required reading at the CUNY, students have shared more than just economic concerns about their ability to access their course materials. I’m interested in understanding students’ experiences and constraints — of special importance at institutions like CUNY that enroll many students from populations that have been historically underserved by higher education in the U.S. — in order to find ways to mitigate students’ challenges in accessing their required course readings.

Toward Possible Solutions for Student Reading Access

As instructors, we assign course readings that we believe are relevant and important to the course topic — content that will encourage and extend students’ learning in the course. For courses in a student’s major or foundational courses (for example, composition), we often assume that those readings will be of use throughout and even beyond students’ time in college. However, students’ perceptions about their required textbooks do not always align with our own. If students perceive a slim possibility that they will use their course readings in the future, or even during the semester they are enrolled in the course, or if the subject matter is not of interest to them, they may not feel compelled to own those materials. Note that students consider their past course experiences when making decisions about course reading access: some students told me that they bought all of their books in prior semesters and their instructors did not use them, so in subsequent semesters they either delayed or opted not to buy their books.

It’s also important to note that the factors students take into consideration around accessing textbooks vary for each course. That is, students often do not use the same access strategies for all of their classes. A senior at Brooklyn College told me that they never purchased an expensive textbook “because of techniques.” They found a free copy of one of the required books online, and had to purchase coursepacks for two classes at the copy shop near campus. They rented print textbooks for the science classes and bought a few other books used from Amazon; they tended to buy and rent books from Amazon because their significant other subscribed to Amazon Prime which gave them free shipping. This student’s campus job was in the Library reserve room, so they were able to read reserve books at work if it was not too busy. They had also participated in CUNY’s College Now program during high school, a program that offers college courses to New York City public high school students, and mentioned that they had learned about various strategies for accessing required course materials while taking College Now classes.

The “techniques” that students use to try to reconcile access and cost take time, often a considerable amount of time each semester. CUNY students and undergraduates at other colleges who commute to campus, have work or caregiving responsibilities, or have other commitments outside of their academic responsibilities are already pressed for time. Time that students use to research and implement “techniques” for accessing required course materials is time they cannot use to do the work of the course. What can faculty, librarians, and administrators do to facilitate students’ access to required course reading? It’s important to understand students’ constraints and choices around their course readings as we consider how to enable as many students as possible to access their textbooks, remove as many barriers as possible, and help them make the most of their time.

In my work with CUNY students I heard about several strategies that their faculty used to ensure their access to course readings. Many students shared that their instructors bring copies of readings, worksheets, and other materials to hand out in class, and some said that instructors distribute packets of course readings or a lab manual. Other professors might post readings to the password-protected learning management system; while students appreciate this strategy, it is important to note that uploads of copyrighted materials may violate copyright law. Some students also mentioned that faculty posted readings in online file storage services like Dropbox for them, or even shared a link to a pirated version of the course readings online.

Academic libraries have debated the benefits and constraints of textbook reserve collections for many years, and my study at CUNY and other research suggests that students would like the library to offer more textbooks on reserve. Some academic libraries have long-standing textbook reserve programs, though others have begun them as a response to rising textbook prices in recent years, sometimes in partnership with student government or other offices on campus. While textbooks on reserve in the library do increase access to required course readings for students, they require funds to purchase materials, space to house them, and labor (and time) by library staff to process and circulate them, which may be a challenge in some libraries. Reporting on a study at Queensborough Community College, also in the CUNY system, Sheila Beck notes that the library’s reserve textbook collection is “heavily used,” however, staffing and other concerns have prompted librarians to consider “less labor intensive and less costly alternatives.“ Beyond textbook reserves, academic librarians can help students to locate required course readings in other ways: older editions of their required textbook, pre- or post-prints of articles in institutional repositories, articles or other texts in databases subscribed to by the library, or readings that may be in the public domain or otherwise available on the open web.

One strategy for offering students immediate, cost-free access to their required course materials is the use of open educational resources (OERs). OERs can take a variety of forms, from a textbook downloadable as a PDF to curated course materials including text, images, and multimedia, available on an institution’s learning management system, an instructor’s course website, or elsewhere online. Because OERs are by definition online and cost-free, using them can alleviate the need for students to spend time each semester to figure out how best to get access to their course readings. We in the library at City Tech have been working with faculty in other departments to advocate for and support adoption of OERs for the past few years, work that has recently been supported by funding from New York State. Interviews with students enrolled in an OER course at City Tech found that students appreciate that their “OER was easier to access and more convenient because everything was available in one place.” While use of OERs is not entirely unproblematic — for example, students do need access to a computer or other device and an internet connection to read their OER course materials — students may print OER materials as well, sometimes at no cost. Librarians are increasingly involved in OER efforts on many campuses, and collaboration between librarians and other faculty can facilitate OER adoption for courses.

I acknowledge that in some cases faculty — especially contingent faculty — may be required to adhere to a departmental syllabus when teaching a course and may not be in control of the assigned readings, thus these strategies may not be equally feasible for all instructors. For full-time faculty, librarians, and administrators, listening to our adjunct faculty colleagues when they share their students’ experiences with acquiring and accessing required course readings is imperative, especially as adjuncts may teach the majority of high-enrollment, required general education courses on campus. Finding ways for adjunct faculty to be involved in campus-based OER or other efforts to increase access to course readings for students, and to be paid for their work, can only stand to benefit both students and faculty.

The proliferation of ways to acquire and access required course readings, both print and digital, plus their rising costs in recent years means that our students use many different strategies — by requirement and by choice — to obtain their readings. These varied strategies have implications that go beyond textbook affordability and directly impact students’ use of time. As faculty, librarians, and administrators, we must consider alternatives to support students in their coursework and ensure that they have access to the materials they need to succeed in their studies.

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