Keeping Up With... Automatic Textbook Billing

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Christina Hilburger.

Christina Hilburger is the Research and Information Literacy Services Librarian at the State University of New York at Fredonia, email: christina.hilburger@fredonia.edu.

Introduction

Despite affordability being widely recognized as a key factor in enrollment and academic achievement, the cost of higher education continues to soar unabated. Publishers have contributed to this financial burden by driving up textbook costs. [1] Over the past three decades, textbook prices have increased at a rate nearly three times faster than inflation [2] and are dominated by three major companies: Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill. [3] This has resulted in significant financial strain on students, forcing many to forgo essential course materials or take on substantial debt to afford them. Academic libraries have long been concerned with the high cost of course materials and have traditionally addressed the issue by providing campus support for Open Educational Resources (OER) initiatives, putting course materials on reserve in the library, and offering digital access to library materials through the campus learning management system (LMS). Many institutions have encouraged the adoption and creation of OER, which have been increasing in popularity since “open’s adolescence” from 2004 to 2010 [4] to help reduce access inequalities and promote innovative teaching strategies. The growth of OER, coupled with the ease of reselling used textbooks online and declining enrollment numbers, has negatively impacted publishers' revenue. [5]

Corresponding with this new dynamic textbook landscape, publishers have shifted away from traditional textbook publishing sales to new models of selling and billing  digital course materials. Automatic textbook billing, sometimes branded "Inclusive Access," or “First-Day Access” incorporates course material expenses into students’ tuition and fees. A growing number of campuses have adopted the model in some form, often with the goal of addressing the increasing expense of textbooks and ensuring students have access to materials by the first day of class. Colleges and universities negotiate with publishers to secure discounts through bulk purchasing agreements, which may in turn be passed along to students. However, there are a number of concerns regarding this model’s implementation that ought to be considered. 

Why Some Educators Are Pushing Back

Affordability/Equity
While Inclusive Access is often marketed as a means to reduce the cost of course materials, the savings may not be as substantial as advertised. Students do not own Inclusive Access content; they typically rent it, sometimes at a higher price than print rentals. The calculated savings are often based on physical materials and may not be as significant when compared to the cost of digital materials. Additionally, students who may have bought used, rented, or borrowed textbooks could potentially end up paying more.

Opt-Out
The rationale behind Inclusive Access is leveling the playing field by guaranteeing that all students have access to course materials from the very first day of class. Many institutions default to an opt-out approach, where students are automatically enrolled in these programs and billed for course materials unless they actively choose to opt-out. This raises concerns about students being aware of their options, accessibility, the digital divide, and how publishers extract student data. For some students, their choice is removed as assignments and quizzes are bundled into the courseware.

Privacy
The increasing use of learning analytics in higher education has raised significant privacy and ethical concerns. Learning analytics involves the extraction and analysis of student data generated through interactions with various digital systems, such as logins, individual clicks, and time-on-page within the LMS. [6]. These data points can be exploited by publishers and vendors for marketing and other purposes. In the context of Inclusive Access, these existing concerns are exacerbated as the extensive data collection removes student agency, making it crucial for institutions to address and educate students about the potential risks associated with data collection and use. Tina Weyland, reference and instruction librarian at Rogue Community College, presents an exceptional examination of student data privacy concerns related to automatic textbook models. In her analysis, Weyland reminds us that a majority of students place trust in their colleges, perceiving an upheld ethic of care. She also emphasizes how we undermine this trust when we overlook the potential risks involved in these contracts. [7]

Impact on Open Educational Resources Initiatives
The adoption of Inclusive Access models also has the potential to impact OER initiatives. These models focus on providing digital course materials through bulk purchasing agreements, which may divert attention and resources away from OER adoption. The convenience offered by inclusive access may discourage faculty from exploring other affordable options. 

Recommendations for Institutions Negotiating Inclusive Access Contracts

  • Ensure transparency by making the terms of use visible to both faculty and students before they sign up for the program. Inform students of any data collection taking place.
  • Prohibit the sale of students' data to third parties within the contract and retain ownership of any collected data within the institution.
  • Opt-in should be the default approach. If contracts are opt-out, provide repeated reminders (through multiple channels) of opt-out dates.
  • Verify that students can fulfill all course requirements without having to opt in.
  • Consider the potential unintended consequences of utilizing publishers' automatic billing plans for course materials.
  • Maintain an open procurement process without requiring nondisclosure agreements.

For more on the importance of protecting students' data, see The Datafied Student: Why Students’ Data Privacy Matters and the Responsibility to Protect It by Kyle M. L. Jones

Conclusion

As librarians, it is crucial for us to leverage our expertise in research and advocacy to actively engage in campus discussions surrounding Inclusive Access, ensuring that the interests and needs of our students are represented and protected. Inclusive Access perpetuates the commodification of education, making the process of learning a market-driven enterprise while raising significant concerns regarding privacy, equity, and affordability. Academic librarians, who are often involved in textbook affordability initiatives on campus, can offer valuable insight into these conversations. Moving forward, it is crucial for institutions to carefully evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of such agreements before implementing them. By mindfully navigating these contracts, we can help safeguard student privacy while ensuring students have access to affordable course materials without creating additional barriers. 

Notes

[1] Vitez, Karolina. "Automatic Textbooks Billing: An Offer Students Can't Refuse." US PIRG Education Fund, 2020. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/USPIRG_Textbook-Automatic-Billing_Feb2020_v3-2.pdf.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "College Tuition and Fees Increase 63 Percent Since January 2006: The Economics Daily." TED: The Economics Daily, 2016. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/college-tuition-and-fees-increase-63-percent-since-january-2006.htm#:~:text=From%20January%202006%20to%20July,excluding%20board)%20increased%2051%20percent.

[3] Allen, Nicole. "A Look Back at the Failed Cengage/McGraw-Hill Merger: One Year Later." SPARC, 2021. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://sparcopen.org/news/2021/a-look-back-at-the-failed-cengage-mcgraw-hill-merger-one-year-later/..

[4] Bliss, TJ, and Smith, M. "A Brief History of Open Educational Resources." In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, edited by Rajiv S. Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener, 9–27. London: Ubiquity Press, 2017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.b.

[5] Weyland, Thomas. "Student Data Privacy and Automatic Textbook Billing." OLA Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2022): 38–42. https://doi.org/10.5399/osu/1093-7374.27.01.09.. 

[6] Jones, Kyle ML, et al. "A Comprehensive Primer to Library Learning Analytics Practices, Initiatives, and Privacy Issues." College & Research Libraries 81, no. 3 (2020): 570-591. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/24374/32199.

[7] Weyland, Thomas. "Student Data Privacy and Automatic Textbook Billing." OLA Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2022): 38–42. https://doi.org/10.5399/osu/1093-7374.27.01.09

Further Reading

Inclusive Access: https://www.inclusiveaccess.org/.

SPARC Decoding “Inclusive Access”: https://sparcopen.org/our-work/automatic-textbook-billing/.